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If the Sabres really want to best the Bruins, they’ll need to start winning faceoffs

Harrison Mooney
Puck Daddy

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Jochen Hecht probably lost this faceoff.

The Buffalo Sabres effectively went out and acquired John Scott in free agency for games like Thursday night's tilt with the Boston Bruins, so its understandable that most of the discussion leading up to this affair is about whether they'll finally be able to win the toughness battle. I'd suggest no. The Bruins' tough guys aren't hampered by marginal utility. As Kevin Bieksa once said about John Scott, "If a 6-foot-8 guy who can’t skate asks to fight, you say no, then skate around him and score a goal."

But if the Sabres are hoping to get the best of the Bruins, there's another battle they'd do well to win: the faceoff circle. And if the early returns from both clubs are any indication, they won't.

When it comes to team faceoff numbers, Boston and Buffalo currently occupy the 1st and 30th spots on the list, respectively. The Bruins boast an absurd win rate of 60.7%, thanks to stellar pivots like Rich Peverley (67.8%), Patrice Bergeron (65.5%), Chris Kelly (61.5%), and David Krejci (57.5%). Six games in, all are among the NHL's top 20 in this category.

These numbers are bound to come down some over the season, but it's not a stretch to assume the Bruins might be able to stay around 55%. They finished last season a league-best 54.5%.

The Sabres, on the other hand, have been beyond terrible in the circle so far this year. Through their first 6 games, their top 3 centres are all winning less than 40% of their draws. Look upon their work and despair:

It's early, but that is abysmal. Lose that many draws, and your chances of winning are slim, both on the ice and in classic NES zapper games Hogan's Alley and Wild Gunman.

Playing between Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville on the first line, Cody Hodgson has taken a third of the Sabres' total faceoffs and won about as many. He's got a 37.9% win rate.

Jochen Hecht, the Sabres' third line centre and first-unit penalty kill centre, has been especially bad. He's drawing at 32.7%. On the penalty kill, where winning the puck is paramount, Hecht has won just 2 of 18 faceoffs.

But defensive zone draws in any situation are an issue for the Sabres. They're only winning 37.7% inside their blueline. From the Buffalo News:

I realize you can twist numbers any way you want, but there's no way you're winning many hockey games when you can't even win 38 percent of the draws in your own zone. Just off the top of my head, I can come up with three goals (at Toronto, the game-winner at home vs. Carolina and the Leafs' third goal Tuesday) that came directly off such losses. There might be more

Yes, there are secondary issues after the puck is dropped (Thomas Vanek taking a long route to the point on the Carolina goal by Jay Harrison, for instance). Sometimes a goaltender flubs a save like Ryan Miller did when Grigorenko lost a draw and Cody Franson scored Tuesday. But ultimately, you don't succeed if you're spending an inordinate amount of time chasing the puck trying to get it back.

Now, the Sabres do have one decent faceoff man on the team: Steve Ott, acquired from Dallas in exchange for Buffalo's best faceoff man last year, Derek Roy. Ott's a natural winger -- he says he's spent 90% of his career at left wing -- but he played centre in Dallas and he played it well. He kept special track of his faceoff numbers too.

For whatever reason, however, even despite the Sabres being pretty clearly without a decent faceoff man, Lindy Ruff has been deploying Ott on the wing to start the season.

Tuesday versus Toronto, Ruff had seen enough, and Ott was finally used in the middle. He responded by winning an absurd 16 of 19 faceoffs. The rest of the Buffalo lineup won 17 of 46. Cody Hodgson saw the same number of faceoffs as Ott. He won 6.

All of this is to say that, regardless of whether or not John Scott is in the lineup somehow magically deterring shenanigans from the bench with his powerful glare, regardless of whether the Buffalo rallies together as a team to pass Boston's punk test this season, they'll still struggle versus the Bruins because they'll be expending a lot of energy chasing the puck off the draw.

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