Capitals' Centers Continue to Adjust to New Faceoff Rules

When the NHL returned after a season-long lockout in 2005, there were a bevy of rule changes, from eliminating ties and introducing the shootout to legalizing the two-line pass.

The rule changes implemented following the end of the NHL's most recent lockout are nowhere near as exciting, but just as pivotal throughout the course of a game. Under the new regulations, centers are no longer allowed to use their hands to win faceoffs, as stated in Rule 76.4:

Both players facing-off are prohibited from batting the puck with their hand in an attempt to win the face-off. Any attempt by either center to win the face-off by batting the puck with their hand shall result in a minor penalty. This penalty shall be announced as “Minor Penalty for Delay of Game – Face-off Violation”. The two players involved in the actual face-off (the centers) are not permitted to play the puck with their hand without incurring a penalty under this rule until such time as a third player (from either team) has at least touched the puck. Once the face-off is deemed complete (and a winner of the face-off is clear) hand passes shall be enforced as per Rule 79.

So far this season, the Washington Capitals have won just 47.5 percent of their faceoffs, which ranks 25th out of 30 entering Monday (they have finished at or over 50 percent every season since 2007, including a four-year stint in the top 10 from 2007-11). The new rules have had differing effects on the Capitals' faceoff specialists. 

"I don't think I use my hands too much, to be honest with you," forward Nicklas Backstrom said after the Capitals practiced Monday in preparation for a two-game Floridian road trip this week. 

On the other hand (no pun intended), forward Matt Hendricks, who leads the Capitals with a 63.9 faceoff percentage, has had to fight the urge to bat at the puck, which he admitted has been an adjustment for him.  

"I like to get as low as I can, for the most part," he said. "In the defensive zone, you had the upper hand on your opponent if you're able to use your glove. If you're going against a lefty on your strong side, a good move is to tie the other centerman's stick up. If that was the case and we got locked up, I'd be able to use my hand. It definitely was an advantage."

Hendricks said Monday that he has noticed that the referees are calling faceoff violation penalties "pretty strongly" this season. The new rule was at the center of controversy (no pun intended again) during Saturday's game between the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild. Predators forward Paul Gaustad was whistled for a minor penalty during a faceoff in overtime when the puck bounced and just so happened to strike his hand while both were on his stick. On the ensuing power play, the Wild scored to win the game by a 2-1 margin. 

"I haven't had that happen to me yet, but it has been happening," Hendricks said. 

Forward Jay Beagle, however, almost had it happen to him during the Capitals' 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens Jan. 24.

"There was one instance, I actually tried to grab it and swing it back with my hand and missed," said Beagle, who has taken 152 faceoffs this season, second-most on the team, including a team-high 71 defensive-zone draws, according to Jon Press of Japers' Rink. "I was thankful for that. After that, I was like, 'Gee, I gotta watch it.' I didn't even think about it. It was an instinct. I missed. The ref said, 'You're lucky you missed or else it would've been a penalty.'"

According to Beagle, a center must "use every resource to get the puck behind you and into the corner" and taking away the use of hands does take away a vital option, but head coach Adam Oates, who was a faceoff whiz in his own right during his Hall-of-Fame career, is glad that faceoffs in the NHL are now hands-free. 

"A couple of them fall down a lot to do it, which I don't like anyway, so I think it's a good rule for them," he said. "It doesn't make sense to me, because if a guy falls down to play the puck with his hand, he's out of position."

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