It’s one of those things in hockey you really don’t think about, just a collection of innocuous plays throughout the game, but they can play a major role in winning and losing.
It’s the faceoff — restarting after every whistle.
While the puck-drops to begin each period and after goals are important, the bigger ones are down in the offensive and defensive zones. It’s a matter of keeping up the pressure, or alleviating it.
It is an area in which No. 12 Penn State has improved this season, and now ranks among the nation’s best heading into this weekend’s games against Alaska-Anchorage at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena.
The Nittany Lions are winning 54.2 percent of faceoff draws this season, good for 11th in Division I. That percentage may not seem like much, but Dartmouth and Union are leading the nation at just more than 57 percent.
“There’s about 60 of them a game,” coach Guy Gadowsky said earlier this week in his session with the media. “If you win the majority, you’re at a huge advantage. It’s hugely important.”
Winning draws is not just about who has the faster hands and stick when the puck drops, either. There are position battles out on the wings, and to the front and behind the centers.
“I think they’re equally important,” said sophomore center Chase Berger, who has been having a good year on the draw. “Sometimes you win the puck back, and if the winger doesn’t — they’re not ready — then the other team gets it, or vice-versa.”
For a team that likes to pepper the opposing goalie with shots, averaging 45.8 per game, which is eight more than the nation’s No. 2 shot-taking team, winning the draw on the offensive end allows even more chances.
“It’s hugely important to us and we have been good, but we haven’t been as good as we need to be,” Gadowsky said.
Surprisingly, the team has struggled on the power play. Given they have one more person to chase the puck, a poor performance on draws with a man advantage is a head-scratcher to the coach.
“That makes no sense,” said Gadowsky, who made it a topic during practices this past week. “… It’s something we have to address. As good as we’ve been, it’s an area we feel we have to get better.”
Berger could understand the difference, at least from a defensive point of view.
“A lot of that has to do with sense of urgency and focus,” Berger said. “When you’re on the penalty kill, I know for us especially, you win that draw, you clear it, that’s 30, 40 seconds.”
Just going into a draw is also as much mental and physical, both for the center and his teammates.
If the Nittany Lions can keep winning draws — and do better with a man advantage — then it’s another aspect of their game that will help keep them among the nation’s top teams this season.
“It’s more of a mentality than anything,” Berger said. “For the most part, winning draws is about just competing, whether it’s the wingers winning the line of scrimmage, which we talk about a lot, or the centers bearing down. I think a lot of that is you’ve got to really focus when you go in there.”
Notes: The games are the first appearance for the Seawolves (1-7) at Penn State (7-1-1), after the Nittany Lions met them each of the past two seasons in Alaska. … Anchorage has scored only eight goals all season, fourth-worst in Division I, and has allowed 27. The Nittany Lions have outscored teams 38-18. … Senior David Goodwin enters the weekend with 99 career points. He is already the career scoring leader in Nittany Lion history.
Men’s ice hockey
Who: Alaska-Anchorage (1-7) at No. 12 Penn State (7-1-1)
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday
Where: Pegula Ice Arena
Radio: WAPY 103.1
Leading scorers: PSU — Denis Smirnov (5 goals, 10 assists), David Goodwin (1 G, 8 A), Trevor Hamilton (1 G, 8 A), Andrew Sturtz (8 G, 1 A). AA — Matt Anholt (2 G, 1 A), Brad Duwe (2 G), Jonah Renouf (1 G, 2 A), Aleksi Ainali (3 A).