EL SEGUNDO, CA — One of the reasons the Los Angeles Kings have made it all the way to Game 7 of the 2014 Western Conference Final has been their ability to possess the puck, and as players and coaches will tell you, puck possession begins in the face-off circle.
Kings Center Jarret Stoll has been one of the best in the National Hockey League in the face-off circle since his days with the Edmonton Oilers. But star center Anze Kopitar, now one of the best face-off men in the league, has had to really work on face-offs, a part of his game that was rather deficient when he started out.
In 2006-07, his rookie season, Kopitar won just 46.1 percent of his draws. It took him five seasons before he really improved, jumping up to 53.8 percent in the 2011-12 season, even though his percentage dropped to 48.6 percent during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when the Kings won the Stanley Cup.
This season, Kopitar won 53.3 percent of his draws during the regular season, and with the Kings preparing for tonight’s Game 7 of the 2014 Western Conference Final against the Chicago Blackhawks (5:00 PM PDT), Kopitar has a 54.2 percent post-season rating.
Kopitar ranks behind Stoll, who leads the NHL with a 57.2 percent rating in the playoffs. Stoll also led the Kings in the regular season with a 54.7 percent rating.
The Kings are one of the best teams in the league in terms of puck possession, and Kopitar is a big reason for that. But when one thinks about Kopitar and puck possession, what generally comes to mind first is his uncanny ability to hold onto the puck and protect it.
Nevertheless, winning face-offs are critical for a puck possession team.
“I think it’s very important for me, personally,” Kopitar told the media in Chicago on May 31. “I think for these guys, the other twenty guys, you want to start with the puck [rather] than chase it. Especially [against] a team like Chicago, they have some really good face-off guys.”
“Most of the time, it’s everybody helping out, everybody coming in there, trying to dig out the pucks,” Kopitar added. “The other times, it’s just winning them clean. But, yeah, I think it’s a big thing.”
Winning face-offs is especially critical during special teams play.
“Now, the last couple years, on the power plays, you start off in the offensive zone, and if you can win that right from the get-go, it’s a big opportunity to get something going,” said Kopitar. “Conversely, in the defensive zone when you’re on the kill, [if] you win a face-off, you feel like you killed the momentum at least a little bit.”
As mentioned earlier, winning face-offs was not one of Kopitar’s strong suits earlier in his NHL career. As such, many might expect to hear him talk about technique as the area where he made the most improvement, but that was not the case at all.
“That’s really hard to say because you’re doing the same thing over and over again,” he said. “It’s really just, I think, a comfort level. It also depends who you’re going up against. There’s a bunch of stuff that goes into that, what the outcome is.”
“I think a lot of it is just getting to know the guys, the other guys, the other players, what their strengths are, how can you expose them,” he added. “You just try to go with that.”
Kopitar’s hard work in the gym each off-season is also paying dividends in the face-off circle.
“I think I’ve gotten a little bit stronger since I first got here, too, so that, obviously, helps,” he noted. “But it’s just different things that, you know, are, I guess, a good result and a bad result. It’s a lot of stuff that goes in there.”
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