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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.”

Brendan Smith ejected for ‘dangerous’ hit on Mark Borowiecki (video)

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The New York Rangers were able to take down the Ottawa Senators on Sunday even though they were forced to play with five defensemen for most of the third period.

With the Rangers leading 2-0 in the third (they ended up winning 3-0), defenseman Brendan Smith was given a five-minute major plus a game misconduct for interference on Sens defenseman Mark Borowiecki.

Borowiecki needed help getting off the ice, and after the game Sens head coach Guy Boucher confirmed that his defenseman lost consciousness on the ice. He’s been diagnosed with a concussion.

You can watch the play by clicking the video at the top of the page. 

After the game, Smith made it clear that he didn’t agree with the referee’s decision to toss him from the contest.

“I think it was a bit harsh,” Smith said, per Newsday. “I’m OK with two minutes [for interference] . . . We made eye contact and he was expecting to get hit. He’s a pretty big guy, a strong guy. I kind of just connected with my shoulder. You see those plays happen all the time. It’s just unfortunate, the outcome. You don’t want to see anyone get hurt. Hopefully, he’ll be OK.”

Guy Boucher called the play “one of the most dangerous hits you can make in hockey.”

It’ll be interesting to see if the NHL’s Department of Player Safety hands out any supplemental discipline to Smith on this one.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: On Nico Hischier getting his own (bacon-less) sandwich

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Nico Hischier hasn’t been in Jersey long, but he already has his own sandwich at a local deli. What’s inside? Grilled chicken, raw onion, lettuce, tomato and Swiss cheese. The concerning thing is that Hischier refused the chance to add bacon to his sandwich. Who doesn’t like bacon? (Sports Illustrated)

–Luke, who is a young Capitals fan, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that is inoperable. Caps winger Alex Ovechkin recently spent time with Luke. That’s just awesome. (Russianmachineneverbreaks.com)

John Tavares is the biggest name on the Islanders roster, but it’s the combination of Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle that have helped spark New York. (Sportsnet)

Cam Atkinson‘s new contract can be used as a comparable for potential free agent Patric Hornqvist, according to pensburgh.com. If that’s the case, it doesn’t sound like the Pens will be able to keep him beyond July 1st. (Pensburgh.com)

–Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore opened the year in the AHL, but his days in the minors appear to be over. The 22-year-old is a key piece of Vegas’ present and future. (Sinbin.Vegas)

–The Dallas Stars have had plenty of problems this season. They aren’t getting goals from depth players, their goaltending has been inconsistent, and a group of struggling defensemen. Why haven’t they fixed this issues? Maybe because they just can’t. (Blackoutdallas.com)

–Artist Tony Harris painted portraits of all of the top 100 players. It took a while, but he finally finished the project with paintings of Yvan Cournoyer and Wayne Gretzky. “All of a sudden, I went from a struggling artist to having as much work as I wanted,” Harris said. (Toronto Star)

–Islanders GM Garth Snow takes a lot of heat for some of the moves he’s made, but getting Josh Bailey was probably the most creative acquisition he made through the draft. (nyislesblog.com)

–The New Jersey Devils have surprised the hockey world this year. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Pavel Zacha, who’s been a colossal disappointment so far. There’s a few things they could do to try to get him out of this funk. They could send him to the AHL, move him to the wing full-time, or even force the experiment to work down the middle. (pucksandpitchforks.com)

–Gary Bettman has been really pleased with the NHL’s revenue stream (he says it’s around $4-5 billion), so don’t be surprised if the salary cap goes up to anywhere between $80-82 million next season. (Spectorshockey.net)

–The Capitals are barely over .500, which means that this next 10-game stretch will be huge for their them. If they don’t show significant improvement, a major change or two could be coming. (novacapsfans.com)

Adam Henrique is doing his part to raise money during Movember. Not only is he raising money by growing a mustache, he’s also organizing the inaugural Rico’s Soiree to benefit Movember. “I’m looking forward to just meeting all of the people who will be at the soirée,” said Henrique. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous, but we will have some of the players joining me which will help a lot and may even have some family in for the event.” (NHLPA.com)

–Gabe, a 14-year-old boy from Ottawa that has a prosthetic leg, has turned out to be an incredible goalie for his youth hockey team. “I just love playing the game and play whenever I can. When I’m playing, there are certain moves that are more challenging, so I have to adapt those moves to fit my mobility. I just push myself to go to the highest level possible.” (Ottawa Citizen)

–Here’s a Q&A with Lightning rookie Mikhail Sergachev, where he talked about the difficulties of playing in the NHL, where he’s made the biggest improvements, and Tampa’s Russian mafia. (Rawcharge.com)

–It’s been 16 months since the Predators and Canadiens swapped Shea Weber for P.K. Subban. The Montreal Gazette took a look back at one of the biggest trades of the last decade. (Montreal Gazette)

–There’s been a lot of talk about Houston getting an NHL team. If that were to happen in the near future, what should they be called? (Chron.com)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: MacKinnon the hero; Lundqvist gives up zero

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Players of the night:

Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes:

Teravainen picked up two goals and an assist in Carolina’s 4-2 win over the New York Islanders, while Aho had a goal and two helpers. It was a positive weekend for the ‘Canes as they were able to pick up victories over Buffalo and New York on Saturday and Sunday.

William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights:

The Golden Knights, who are currently second in the Pacific Division, took down the division-leading Kings, 4-2, thanks to a pair of goals from Karlsson in the first period.

Just a hunch, but Kings goalie Jonathan Quick is probably going to want this one back:

Highlights of the night: 

The Hurricanes may have come up with the victory, but it was Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy that scored the most impressive goal of the game, as he split two players before beating Cam Ward.

Nathan MacKinnon was up to his old tricks, as he helped the Avs come back to beat the Red Wings. MacKinnon registered the primary assist on Carl Soderberg‘s game-tying goal with under a minute remaining in regulation. He also added this incredible goal in overtime:

Who knew that Ducks defenseman Josh Manson had these kind of moves?

Factoids of the Night:

King Henrik is moving up the all-time list:

Hey, shutouts are never easy, so the fact that King Henrik has 63 of them is pretty impressive. He had to make a key save on Mike Hoffman in the first period:

Ducks goalie John Gibson faced a lot of rubber. He turned away 50 of 52 shots in a 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers.

Suspensions of the Night: 

Sunday was a big night for the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, as they handed out two suspensions.

The first one was given to Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas for his slash to the back of Jets forward Mathieu Perreault’s head. Gudas will sit for 10 games. He’ll also forfeit over $408,000 in salary. 

Predators forward Austin Watson was also disciplined for boarding Avalanche rookie Dominic Toninato. Watson, who isn’t a repeat offender, was suspended for two games. 

Hall of Fame Tribute of the Night: 

The Ducks players wore Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne’s jerseys during the pre-game warmup. As you probably remember, both players entered the Hockey Hall of Fame last week.

I prefer the white “Kariya” jersey, but that’s just me.

Scores:

Hurricanes 4, Islanders 2

Avalanche 4, Red Wings 3 (OT)

Rangers 3, Senators 0

Golden Knights 4, Kings 2

Ducks 3, Panthers 2

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Austin Watson suspended two games for boarding Dominic Toninato

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The NHL’s Department of Player Safety is working overtime on Sunday night, as they’ve handed out a pair of suspensions.

Moments after announcing Radko Gudas’ 10-game suspension, the league handed a two-game ban to Predators forward Austin Watson for boarding Avs rookie Dominic Toninato.

Unlike Gudas, Watson has no history of being fined or suspended during his NHL career.

Here’s the league’s full explanation of their decision to suspend Watson:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.