TAMPA — As he did in the first two games of the second-round playoff series, Lightning center Yanni Gourde lined up opposite Hurricanes counterpart Jordan Staal at center ice to begin Thursday night’s Game 3 at Amalie Arena.
And just as in the previous two in Raleigh, N.C., Staal got the better of Gourde, giving Carolina possession of the puck to start the game.
Through the first three games of the series, the Hurricanes have won 54 percent of the faceoffs, including 57 percent (30 of 53) in their 3-2 overtime win in Game 3. They’ve been consistently dominant, winning at least 52 percent in each game.
“It does add up in terms of possession time, but especially (defensive)-zone, offensive-zone faceoffs are important either in creating offense or getting the puck out of your zone,” Lightning assistant coach Jeff Halpern said. “It’s something that we talk about with each individual guy.”
Gourde led the Lightning with 316 faceoff wins during the regular season. Among Tampa Bay skaters with at least 30 games played, Steven Stamkos had the best win percentage, 57.2 (238 of 416).
Stamkos’ productivity in the faceoff circle was a big reason the Lightning feared his absence after he hunched over in discomfort in a noncontact situation in the third period of a win April 8 at Columbus. Stamkos missed the final 16 games of the regular season with a lower-body injury.
“There’s no doubt it’s a concern, and our centers, they’ve got to dig in,” coach Jon Cooper said at the time. “And not every faceoff is won completely clean. It’s on our wingers, as well. A little bit of our faceoff intensity has got to pick up.”
Staal ranked third in faceoff win percentage (60.64) this postseason entering Friday’s games, winning 39 of 64 meetings at the dot. Carolina had the fourth-best faceoff win percentage (52.2 percent) in the postseason; Tampa Bay ranked 11th (48.2 percent).
Staal’s faceoff wins have helped Carolina control the pace of games, something that became even more prominent Thursday. He won his first five faceoffs in the opening period before losing to Gourde in the Hurricanes zone with 7:50 remaining in the period, the Lightning’s first faceoff win after eight losses.
It’s an area the Lightning know they have to improve.
“Obviously you want to be starting with the puck more times than not,” center Anthony Cirelli said. “I think our centermen, I know myself, have to do a better job trying to come up with more wins.”
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.