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Stricter faceoff rules have put some defensemen in an ‘unnatural’ position

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Well, this is awkward.

Stricter rule enforcement in the National Hockey League has led to more defensemen taking draws this season and, well, it has been a challenge – even for some of the best players in the world.

“It’s a little bit unnatural,” Arizona Coyotes defenseman Luke Schenn said. “It’s not something you see all the time. You see a D-man go in there, you’re probably not going to win too many of them.”

Such is life for NHL defensemen these days, thrown into the faceoff circle to do something they never figured was in their job description. Like position players taking the mound to pitch in a Major League Baseball game or NFL running backs having to throw a pass, defensemen aren’t accustomed to taking faceoffs and almost never work on it in practice. But this season, defensemen are finding themselves in unfamiliar territory much more often as officials order forwards out of the circle for failing to follow the protocol .

Faceoffs are one of the most tactical elements in hockey, a chess match played out over a couple of seconds between players who have spent much of their lives perfecting their craft to win possession of the puck. Blindingly fast work with sticks and leverage are key. It’s no place for bigger defensemen with their longer sticks, most of whom are far more comfortable handling the puck once it’s won back to them.

Eleven different defensemen have taken a faceoff so far this season and 64 since 3-on-3 overtime was instituted in 2015-16. No matter how many times it happens or how awkward, it’s on the highlight reel and becomes the subject of ribbing from teammates.

“They’re going to give you a hard time because they know it’s not something you do all the time,” Calgary Flames defenseman Michael Stone said. “If you do win one, it’s pure excitement, I think, from everybody.”

Defensemen have been involved in 92 faceoffs over the past two-plus seasons and have won only about a third of them. Maybe a few of the unlikely victories have come from being underestimated.

“It’s funny that when you get a D-man in, a lot of times those centermen relax and the D-men are all-in,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who grew up playing defense. “There’s a lot of cheers that go on when a defenseman goes in there and wins a draw.”

Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning is 6-foot-6 and a Norris Trophy finalist as one of the best defensemen in the league. He recently was pressed into faceoff duty on a penalty kill in overtime. No pressure, right?

Hedman put his stick down, beat Columbus center Nick Foligno and is now a perfect 1 for 1. He was stunned.

“The guys were probably as shocked as I was that I actually won it,” Hedman said. “I could probably not do it again. I guess my timing was perfect in that moment.”

Call it perfect timing, call it luck or call it whatever you want. New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk is 3 for 4 in his career but still remembers losing his first faceoff and getting mad about it.

Of course, Boychuk has put “zero” practice time into it and has a simple, albeit ugly, strategy.

“You just tie up,” Boychuk said. “Try to tie up, at least, and smack it to the wall. Tell the person that you’re going to try to shoot it to.”

Or maybe just lose it intentionally, suggested Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, so everyone on your team knows where the puck is going. Because, c’mon, this is probably not going to end well.

“Centermen are so good at faceoffs now, you’re probably going to lose it anyway,” Gardiner said. “You’re kind of just going in there and hoping for the best.”

Hedman is no faceoff specialist like Patrice Bergeron or Jonathan Toews. And defensemen face another twist of pressure in addition to trying to a) win the draw and b) avoid taking a faceoff violation penalty trying to do something they aren’t good at:

“For a defenseman, if you lose it you’ve just got to make sure you get into your position right away and make sure you focus on playing D,” Hedman said. “Just make sure that you don’t lose it too clean that they get a scoring opportunity right away. You just try and do as good a job as you possibly can and try and win it obviously, but it’s pretty tough.”

In 19 NHL seasons, Islanders coach Doug Weight took thousands of faceoffs. But he hadn’t thought much about asking defensemen to practice faceoffs – until now.

“Later in periods it’s so prevalent getting thrown out now that you want guys that can come in and take a draw,” Weight said. “The only occasion where we’d have a D is if you’re down 4-on-3, 5-on-3. Obviously it’s a huge piece of puck possession.”

Puck possession? Sure, that’d be great, but most defensemen just don’t want to get embarrassed.

After years of practicing against his brother Mark, a forward for the Ottawa Senators, Stone wants to make sure he at least makes things interesting.

“I’m mostly just playing not to get beat clean,” Stone said. “I’m not looking to win a faceoff clean, especially on that kind of a play. You just try not to get beat clean, do whatever you can to kind of push that in the direction of your guys.”

When Washington defenseman John Carlson stepped in recently for a draw in overtime, he had a sterling record: He had won his lone NHL faceoff. But he lost this one an cursed teammates for not letting him practice faceoffs.

Even though Carlson lost his second career faceoff attempt, he scored the game-winning goal to quiet the razzing from his teammates. Hedman won his and wants his faceoff days to be over.

“Hopefully I don’t have to take any more,” he said, “so I stay 100 percent for the rest of my career.”

The Buzzer: Tavares gets back to scoring ways

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Players of the Night: 

Jonathan Bernier, Colorado Avalanche: Bernier made quite the save on Ryan Kesler, using his paddle to stop a backhand shot after sprawling across his crease in an attempt of desperation. He also stopped 33 pucks and won his sixth straight game in the process.

Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks: Jones made 29 out of 30 saves in the second and third periods in a 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. His 35-save effort was a nice rebound after allowing three goals on six shots and getting yanked on Saturday.

John Tavares, New York Islanders: Tavares scored a shorty in regulation on an unassisted breakaway and then the game-winner in overtime to lead the Isles past the Habs in Montreal.

Highlights of the Night:

Tyler Seguin provided some matinee magic with this overtime winner in Boston. What a goal:

Bernier made this incredible paddle save on a poor Ryan Kesler:

MISC:

Scores:

Stars 3, Bruins 2 (OT)

Avalanche 3, Ducks 1

Sharks 4, Kings 1

Islanders 5, Canadiens 4 (OT)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Barzal, Tavares shine as Islanders edge Canadiens 5-4 in overtime

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The scary thing about Mathew Barzal is that he may just be gaining steam.

Any time the New York Islanders play these days, it turns into Barzal Watch (in the Twitter world: #BarzalWatch). Even if the Islanders had plummeted as of late with five losses in their past six games heading into Monday, many are just tuning in to see what the dynamic rookie is going to do.

Indeed, Barzal has been lights this season, with 44 points in 44 games prior to Monday and coming off the buzz of a five-point game on Saturday — the second time he’s done that this season.

But John Tavares, who had just one goal in nine games coming into Monday, stole some of that spotlight back with a shorthanded goal in regulation and then the game-winner in overtime in a 5-4 victory over the Montreal Canadiens.

Tavares second of the game came 1:51 into over time and after Carey Price made quite the save to stop a redirected attempt by Tavares just before the latter scored the winner.

Barzal was at it again early in the first period as the Islanders jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead.

Barzal fed Anthony Beauvillier with a nice lead pass and the latter ripped home his eighth of the season just down the road from where he grew up in Sorel-Tracy, Quebec, beating Carey Price with New York’s first shot of the game.

It was Barzal’s 30th assist of the season and he followed that up with his 16th goal of the year on the Islanders just over five minutes later for the two-goal advantage. Barzal finished with three points and now has 10 in his past three games.

The Canadiens entered the game 2-0-1 in their past three games but were without Phillip Danault due to a puck to the head on Saturday and Andrew Shaw, who was injured in the same game.

Despite their recent success, things looked grim early on, with Price allowing two goals on four shots.

The Hab battled back, first by forcing a turnover in New York’s zone, allowing Jakub Jerabek to quickly find a wide open Nicolas Deslauriers out front to make it 2-1.

Another defensive breakdown by the Isles led to the tying goal as Paul Byron snatched his 12th of the year on a rebound.

Barzal grabbed his third point of the night early in the second period as the Isles restored the lead with Adam Pelech‘s first of the season at 2:37. And the Islanders led by two for the second time as John Tavares scored shorthanded 1:59 later on New York’s 10th shot.

The Canadiens, down two again, needed a second comeback and they put it together beginning with Jonathan Drouin‘s marker with 34 seconds left in the second period.

Montreal completed the comeback on the power play in the third, with Max Pacioretty scoring his 14th at 13:01.

Andrew Cogliano chokes up talking about the end of his iron-man streak

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An emotional Andrew Cogliano said having his iron-man streak ended by suspension was a “tough pill to swallow.”

Speaking to Fox Sports’ Kent French prior to the Anaheim Ducks 3-1 loss against the Colorado Avalanche on Monday, Cogliano choked up when asked about how tough the past 24 hours had been like for him.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow, I’m not going to lie,” Cogliano said, fighting back tears. “I’ve played hard and I’ve battled. I’m a professional in that I’ve played a long time and I’ve now missed a game.”

Cogliano was suspended Sunday for two games following an illegal check to the head of Los Angeles Kings forward Adrian Kempe in a 4-2 Ducks win on Saturday.

The ban ended the NHL’s fourth-longest games played streak at 830 games for Cogliano, who had never missed action in his 11-year NHL career before Monday.

Cogliano was a 134 games shy of Doug Jarvis’ record of 964 consecutive games played, which the Ducks forward would have reached at the start of the 2019-2020 if he remained healthy.

“First and foremost I think, I probably initiated contact too late,” Cogliano said. “I’ve been very open about that with this process, and I made a mistake at that time.

“As I think about the hit though, I watch it and I still see that my body doesn’t change through the process of it. I think my shoulders are low, my elbows are low, my knees are bent and I’m in a pretty set position. As it evolves, he tries to make a play back across my body, which ends up maybe initiating some head contact near my upper back area. That’s what I see. I think there’s no injury, he came back and played. At the end of the day from what I’ve seen, it is a situation where we closed the gap on each other a little bit.”

Despite the hit, which clearly showed Cogliano nail Kempe in the head well after the puck had left the vicinity, Cogliano was surprised about hearing he was going to have a chat with the league.

“I was told after the game from Bob [Murray] that I was going to have a hearing or have a call,” Cogliano said. “I was surprised because no one said anything after the game to me otherwise. There was no media talking about it or nothing was brought up, so I was more surprised about that. Initially, I was thinking back on it, wondering what happened and wondering if I did anything bad.

“Obviously, you never want to injure anyone on the ice. That’s a fact. I’ve played 11 years and that’s one thing that I have stood behind and I’m glad he played the rest the game. From my end, there’s zero intent to do any sort of head contact or hit a person to injure them. I think it was a situation where I admitted to initiating contact too late and I think it was something that happened that ended up being very unfortunate for me.”

Cogliano said his teammates, and at least one Ducks legend, have offered their support.

“I’m probably being too dramatic about it. I’m sorry my emotions came out for whatever reason. I have had a lot of support.” Cogliano said. “I think there has been a lot of people that have reached out and initiated that I have done something special. The more I look back on it, it’s pretty cool. I think that playing 830 games in a row, not a lot of guys can say that and I think that’s something that I will hold to my heart.

“I appreciate all the texts. [Teemu] Selanne has been a big advocate in terms of reaching out. I may be making too big a deal of it, but I think when you go through the process and think back about coming to work and playing every single game for 11 straight years, it holds some value and holds some value to a lot of the guys in the league. Like I said, this is the last way I wanted it to go out. I’m glad he wasn’t injured and I’ll take the suspension, move on and come back and help my team.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: New York Islanders at Montreal Canadiens

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PROJECTED LINES

NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Anders LeeJohn Tavares – Alain Quine
Anthony BeauvillierMathew BarzalJordan Eberle
Michael Dal Colle – Brock NelsonShane Prince
Jason Chimera – Tanner Fritz – Cal Clutterbuck

Nick LeddyScott Mayfield
Adam PelechSebastian Aho
Thomas HickeyRyan Pulock

Starting goalie: Thomas Greiss

PREVIEW FOR ISLANDERS-CANADIENS

MONTREAL CANADIENS
Alex GalchenyukJonathan DrouinDaniel Carr
Max PaciorettyPaul ByronCharles Hudon
Artturi LehkonenTomas PlekanecBrendan Gallagher
Nicolas DeslauriersByron Froese – Jacob De La Rose

Karl AlznerJeff Petry
Jordie BennJakub Jerabek
Victor Mete – David Schlemko

Starting goalie: Cary Price