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Drop the puck, already!

The opening faceoff of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals is mere hours away, so it's the right time to take a look at how the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins match up in the faceoff circle, and how that might shape the outcome of the series. In yesterday's Globe and Mail, uber-hockey statistician Alan Ryder made the case that the Red Wings will hold a critical advantage in this area, citing the fact that Detroit was #1 in the NHL with a 53% winning rate during the regular season, compared to Pittsburgh's league-worst 46%. Adjust those figures for how they might do specifically against each other, prorate that across 50-60 faceoffs per game, and that does indeed appear to give the Red Wings an extra minute or two of puck possession per game, which, when you're looking for difference-makers between two top teams, could be a decisive factor.

What I decided to do was to take a peek inside those overall percentages, and focus on how each of the main faceoff men (Crosby, Malkin and Staal for Pittsburgh, Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Draper for Detroit) do when you split the performance by zone (offensive, neutral, defensive) and by the handedness of their opponent. Roughly two-thirds of NHL skaters (and all six players noted above) shoot left-handed, so screening out winning percentages on this basis might paint a more detailed and relevant picture. When considering the zone in which a faceoff occurs, it has been pointed out by Behind the Net that neutral zone draws have a lesser impact on goal-scoring (for or against) than those in either end, so beware the center whose figures are boosted by winning the less-important battles.

Detroit




What we see here is that while the Euro Twins (Datsyuk & Zetterberg) were equally dominant against right- and left-handed opponents, Kris Draper had a pretty significant difference in his performance. Against right-handers he won more than 61%(!) of draws, with a dropoff of 5% or so against left-handers. That trend carried through in the playoffs, particularly in the first round when the right-handed Jason Arnott struggled in the faceoff circle for Nashville. Overall, the outlook from Detroit's perspective is that they should still be quite strong, but perhaps Draper might take a step back.


Pittsburgh




There may be cause for hope, Penguins fans, as you peruse the numbers above. Sidney Crosby, for example, is 5% better against lefties than righties, so his odds against Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Draper look more favorable. Evgeni Malkin, as well, fared better against sinister foes, and if you consider the critical offensive and defensive zone situations, Malkin's numbers look much more respectable than his overall 39.3%. Jordan Staal's prospects don't brighten any when viewed through this lens, but at least for two out of the three main Penguins, things aren't so bad.

Taken in whole, the Red Wings should still hold the advantage in the faceoff circle, but that dominance may not be as severe as top-level analysis would indicate. Crosby and Malkin might well be able to hold their own, while Staal should almost certainly have a tough time. I'm guessing that instead of Ryder's projection for a 57/43 split in favor of Detroit, the Red Wings might end up winning more like 53-54%, reducing the puck-possession gain by nearly half. That said, I am still calling for Detroit to win the series in five games, leaving the Penguins surely frustrated, but having launched a new era of championship contention in Pittsburgh.

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