Faceoffs are becoming a big story in the Wild-St. Louis Blues series, and not only because the Wild’s scorching the Blues in the circle and the Blues are accusing the Wild of cheating.
In Game 4 Wednesday, linesmen Brian Murphy and Mark Shewchyk drew the scorn of restless fans inside Scottrade Center and tired fans watching the late game on TV for slowing down faceoffs with either incessant warnings or by calling violations, mostly on the Wild.
The Wild has won an NHL-best 58 percent of its draws (164 of 283) in the playoffs, yet coach Bruce Boudreau still voiced agitation Thursday that Murphy and Shewchyk kicked “our centermen out every second time.”
“They cheat a lot,” Vladimir Sobotka, the Blues’ only center above 50 percent, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We need to adjust to that and try to cheat more, too.”
A linesman’s lone wish on faceoffs is to make it fair for both teams. As long as that puck can land in the middle of the dot without incident, linesmen will usually let centers move their feet and hack and whack as much as they want.
But if a center attempts the same thing before the puck hits the ice or a winger jumps too early, a violation is whistled and the center’s gone. Two violations on the same faceoff results in a penalty, although it’s rare a linesman will call that, especially in the playoffs.
Wednesday, the clashes between the linesmen and centers were magnified.
“I know it slowed the pace of the game up quite a bit, but the linesmen were just trying to make the faceoffs as fair as possible,” said former Wild player Kyle Brodziak, who has won 43.9 percent of his draws.
Wild captain Mikko Koivu leads the NHL in faceoff win percentage at 66 percent (62 of 94). Martin Hanzal ranks fourth at 60.3 percent (41 of 68). Eric Staal has won 52.3 percent.
The Blues’ Alex Steen has had the toughest time at 30 percent, while Ivan Barbashev has won 42 percent and Patrik Berglund 41.9.
Only on faceoffs at the center-ice dot must the visiting team’s center put his stick on the ice first. The defending team’s center must place his stick on the ice first in the other eight faceoff locations.
This is where things get tricky.
The Wild is considered a tough team to control. The two biggest reasons?
First, according to some linesmen, Koivu and Hanzal are considered two of the bigger “cheaters” in the league in that they try to gain every advantage possible; and second, since most Minnesota lines have a winger who has played center in the past, the Wild’s centers know a competent drawman will replace them if they happen to be kicked out.
In other words, if Koivu, Hanzal or Staal gets the boot, there’s usually backup in wingers Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund or Jason Pominville.
Besides Koivu and Hanzal, linesmen say some other rampant “cheaters” include San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, Pittsburgh’s Matt Cullen and Boston’s Dominic Moore.
Koivu’s MO? If he’s the defensive center, linesmen say that after he puts his stick down, the moment the other center’s stick comes down, Koivu slides across and hooks the offensive center’s stick before the puck hits the ice.
Hanzal’s MO? If he’s the defensive center, he’ll either fall to the ice to tie up the other center or come through with his stick and block the strong-side center’s forehand before trying to win the draw with his feet.
Wednesday was also a perfect storm because Murphy, one of the NHL’s most senior linesmen, and Shewchyk, who has also been around the block but seemed to be having the toughest time gaining control, are based in the East. So they don’t work with the Wild or Blues as often and thus don’t know their tendencies or have relationships with the centers.
Blues coach Mike Yeo feels the Wild’s domination in the circle has led to its high shot volume (277-192 in shot attempts) and “there’s been a number of occasions our forwards are getting picked to the inside and they’re getting scoring chances off that.”
If Yeo has complained to series manager Kay Whitmore about this, the linesmen Wednesday likely were informed of the Blues’ concern and thus were laying the hammer down on the Wild.
“We’re trying to do what we can to equal the advantage, and we feel there’s been some cheat on the other side,” Yeo said Friday.