- The Washington Times
Tuesday, May 18, 2021

There’s not much separating the Bruins and the Capitals, as evidenced by their latest close contest, Monday night’s Game 2 Bruins’ win. For the 11th straight postseason game between the teams, the contest was decided by a single goal, this time with Boston‘s Brad Marchand tying the series at one apiece just 39 seconds into overtime.

But if there’s one area where Boston has a clear edge over Washington, it’s at the faceoff dot. And the Bruins have flexed their superiority there throughout the first two games of the first-round series, winning 80 of 130 puck drops.

Boston has been a consistently strong faceoff team, finishing the regular season with an NHL-best 55.3 faceoff win percentage. Washington is on another end of the spectrum, closing the regular season at 49.2%. It doesn’t help that Evgeny Kuznetsov has yet to return from the coronavirus protocol list and Lars Eller left midway through the second period Monday.

Those absences exacerbate the issue in the faceoff circle. Losing 61.5% of the draws through two games isn’t a recipe for success. But if there’s any consolation for Washington, the last decade shows a team doesn’t need to be dominant at the dot to find playoff success — just ask the 2017-18 Capitals, who won the Stanley Cup despite losing a majority of the draws.

Still, coach Peter Laviolette isn’t satisfied with how Washington is performing on draws, although he recognizes having Eller and Kuznetsov out has likely played a role in the discrepancy with Boston.

“The faceoffs definitely matter,” Laviolette said. “That’s possession. That’s clear-cut possession. It’s either you’re creating offense in the offensive zone or a chance to break out from the defensive zone and get out of your end or to establish the direction in the neutral zone. There’s no question that it matters. We’ll try to look at it and continue to see if there’s things that we can do.”

The task is complicated through Eller’s injury and Kuznetsov’s absence. Laviolette didn’t have an update on Eller’s lower-body injury apart from calling the center day-to-day.

Kuznetsov will travel with the team to Boston, as will goaltender Ilya Samsonov, who also spent time on the coronavirus protocol list. But Laviolette downplayed the move by saying, “they are a part of our team,” and the team travels.

That leaves little certainty about when the Capitals’ lineup could resemble something closer to full strength. So in the meantime, Washington aims to narrow the gap between it and Boston, potentially through more tie-ups — allowing all six forwards to battle for possession in a scrum rather than relying on the center alone to win the puck.

“When you lose two centermen where their job is to take faceoffs and you’ve got a couple out of the lineup, it becomes a little bit more challenging,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “But we’ll continue to work at it.”

Four times since the 2010-11 playoffs, a team that won under 50% of its faceoff attempts went on to secure the Stanley Cup title. The Los Angeles Kings in 2012 (49.7%), Chicago Blackhawks in 2013 (46.8%), Capitals in 2018 (49.1%) and Tampa Bay Lightning in 2020 (48.4%) proved teams can overcome a slight deficiency in that area.

Just one team in the last decade has produced as poor of a regular-season faceoff win percentage as the Capitals and gone on to win the Stanley Cup: the Penguins. Pittsburgh posted a 47.6 faceoff win percentage in 2016-17 — the third-worst mark in the NHL — but rebounded in the playoffs to win 50.4% of the draws en route to the title.

Washington’s current faceoff margin is much wider through two games, even on power plays (37.5%) and penalty kill opportunities (42.9%). Those special teams scenarios can be especially costly, although the Bruins and Capitals set up faceoff plays during 5-on-5 situations, too. Garnet Hathaway scored Washington’s second goal Monday directly off a faceoff win, for instance.

So while there’s precedent in place that a faceoff win percentage doesn’t guarantee success, there’s a correlation there. And Washington hopes to amend the current faceoff outlook before Game 3 in Boston on Wednesday.

“We’ve got to dig in a little bit more,” Laviolette said, “see if we can find something that can swing that puck our way.”

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