Rangers making strides when it comes to winning faceoffs

Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins plays the

Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins plays the puck against Jeff Halpern. (Jan. 31, 2013) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

When Jeff Halpern was a rookie with the Washington Capitals in 1999, he was taught the art of the faceoff by tutors with different styles.

"I had Adam Oates and Andrei Nikolishin," the Rangers center said. "Oates was one of the best faceoff guys in the history of the game. There's so many little things you can learn: body position, the stick . . . But Oatsie was a guy who took faceoffs the same way every time, he only had a couple little things when guys tried to tie him up or win it clean. Niko was a guy who created a battle on every faceoff; he was a master of tying guys up and using his feet. He was a bull in the dots.

"You pick things up along the way that you like and you can adapt."

After a shaky start this season, the Rangers' pivots are certainly adapting.

In the last four games, they've won an average of 60 percent of faceoffs (55 percent against the Flyers, 64 against the Sabres, 67 against the Lightning and 57 against the Jets) and that has helped to lift the Rangers into eighth in the NHL at 51.8, behind league-leading Boston (57.8), Phoenix, Minnesota, San Jose, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

On Feb. 14, Rangers centers won 58 percent against the Islanders, whom they face Thursday night at Nassau Coliseum.

Coaches recognize the importance of faceoffs, especially in the offensive or defensive zones. Center Red Berenson, 73, who played 987 NHL games and has coached the Michigan Wolverines for 28 years, has said "you can win or lose a game in one faceoff." But being among the best is when "you're lucky to be over 55 or 60 percent. You're not going to win 80 percent."

To be consistent, players use their assets and adjust to the opponent, the official dropping the puck and their wingers. Brian Boyle, who is 6-7, likes to use his size for leverage. Halpern, 36, employs different techniques, but remembers tendencies of players.

In today's NHL, film study plays a larger role, but Halpern keeps that in perspective.

"I try to watch video of teams, but sometimes I feel like I'm thinking too much in the circle, and I won't watch video for awhile," he said. "I know most guys in the league, especially the power-play guys. I take a lot of penalty-kill minutes, they're the ones who've been taking them against me for years," such as Brad Richards, now his teammate.

"Richie's a good example. We've been facing off for over 10 years," Halpern said. "There was a way I used to beat him pretty clean every time and then last year, I had a lot of problems. You develop a book and when they start switching and things start working for them, you have to change that up."

Repetition is essential for rookies. J.T. Miller, 19, who was moved back to center from left wing because Richards was out injured, was 0-for-6 in the first period Tuesday, then won eight of 10, mostly against Flyers center Brayden Schenn.

"I just hadn't taken them in a while or practiced," Miller said. "At first, all of them were on my back side; I'm a lefty, so I had to go against the grain. Toward the end, I started getting more on my good side."

Halpern counts on experience. "It's just getting in a rhythm," he said. "Timing is big. Officials are different. Some guys, soon as the home team touches down, they drop it. I watch the opponent's stick, where he puts it on the dot. Sometimes, even as a home team, I'll go first because I want to get set; other times you think you can get a jump with the ref. It's a fun craft, but an ongoing process."

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