WASHINGTON — The faceoff circle is Lightning forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s lab, and on this day, he knew he had to get back to work.
Before the Lightning played the Capitals on Saturday night at Capital One Arena, Bellemare was not too happy with his start to the season. He won just seven of 20 faceoffs through the Lightning’s first two games.
Over his seven-year NHL career, Bellemare, 36, has been one of the best faceoff men in the game. He has won 51.7 percent, including 55.3 over the past three years, yet he has always seen his success as a work in progress.
It’s the way that Bellemare approaches faceoffs — and the meticulous way he prepares — that has made him a key asset on winning teams.
Playing for Colorado last season, Bellemare won 60.7 percent of his faceoffs, which would have led the Lightning by besting Steven Stamkos (57.2 percent), also one of the league’s best.
Bellemare’s path to the NHL was unique. Born and raised in France, where hockey takes a back seat to other sports, he first played professionally in Sweden before coming to the NHL as a 29-year-old rookie.
Before Colorado, he spent two years in Las Vegas, two teams with which he didn’t have to carry a scoring load, before signing a two-year free-agent deal with Tampa Bay. So he has been in positions where he can concentrate on what he does best.
“When I came into the league, my role seven, eight years ago was totally different in Europe, so I had to understand, okay, what was the thing that I had to do to be able to be a part of the league,” Bellemare said. “And now I’ve had the luxury and the honor to be able to be on teams that are able to win the Cup.
“So then I don’t have to try to reinvent the wheel and try to be the guy scoring 70 (points). That’s not my goal. If they just want me to be solid in faceoffs and that’s all they want from me, I’m going to try to be as good as possible.”
That’s not to say Bellemare’s role isn’t extremely important for the Lightning. He plays on the fourth line and pairs with Mathieu Joseph on the penalty kill, where he is relied on to win faceoffs in the defensive zone.
“On the penalty kill, I’m already at a disadvantage because those guys get to call which side they want to be on, so it’s going to be their strong side,” Bellemare said. “So then whatever small thing you can try to study to get whatever advantage you can bring is big. Maybe that might be the faceoff that you win or that you don’t lose clean that makes the team get the puck out, and maybe that’s the one that makes the team win.”
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Winning faceoffs plays a huge role in puck possession and establishing zone time, and for all their strengths, the Lightning were a middle-of-the-road faceoff team last season. And in the offseason, they lost some of their top faceoff players.
Tyler Johnson, traded to the Blackhawks to acquire salary cap space, ranked second on the team at 54.8 percent. Barclay Goodrow (50 percent), traded to the Rangers, took most of the Lightning’s penalty-kill faceoffs last season. Yanni Gourde, selected by the Kraken in the expansion draft, had a 50.4 percent win rate over the past three seasons.
Positioning is important in winning faceoffs. Getting low and over the puck is key. You need a quick stick, but Bellemare said his success is found in how he studies his opponents in the circle and anticipates what they will do, and even knowing the referees’ tendencies in dropping the puck.
“(Bellemare) will go after it a little bit. He’ll analyze the video. He’ll work on it in practice,” said Lightning assistant coach Jeff Halpern, who coaches faceoffs and owned a career 54.7-percent win percentage in his 14-year NHL career. “He’ll really try to put the work into it to make himself better. And so I think he understands the importance not just for the team, but for himself as well, in those moments.
“They’re pressure moments when you get asked to do stuff like penalty kill or big faceoffs. And you can tell it’s something that he wants to do, and it’s probably the first thing you look for as a centerman, someone who wants to take that faceoff.”
Then there’s the technique, which Bellemare spends a lot of time perfecting in the offseason. And it’s something he works on with a lot of young players, like helping third-line center Ross Colton on technique and positioning in recent practices.
“Just with Pierre, working on little keys, getting over the dot, just goes a long way,” Colton, 25, said. “We’ve been looking at clips together and then doing stuff after practice. Just taking it all in and seeing if I could learn a thing or two from him is really cool.”
Bellemare has embraced that role, and his mental Rolodex of scouting reports on opponents and referees, as well as his attention to detail, are assets beyond his faceoff success.
“For young guys, it’s about trying to understand, ‘Okay, this guy has been taking faceoffs forever, and this is what he does,’ " Bellemare said. “We may be in a strong position, but you still have to make sure you know where the puck is going to be dropped in the circle or make sure you know that when you sweep, maybe you’re sweeping on the ice but actually you’re not because your stick’s a little too short or your arm is not low enough.
“It’s small things. I’m not an expert, far from it, but I’m definitely trying to add this to my toolbox to be able to help the team.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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