by: Jason Mackey, TribLIVE Updated:
PITTSBURGH - Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has options.
He probably wouldn't mind results, too.
Though the Penguins have plenty of flexibility in the faceoff circle — with Marcel Goc's return, seven of the team's 12 forwards have played center — their numbers against Columbus didn't sparkle.
Entering Tuesday's games, the Penguins ranked 11th among 16 Stanley Cup playoff teams with a 48.4 percent success rate on faceoffs.
That represents a 2.6 percent decline from the Penguins' 51 percent mark during the regular season.
“The game's about puck possession, and faceoffs are big,” center Brandon Sutter said. “We need to do a better job of trying to snap a few more back.”
Game 6 injuries to Sutter and Joe Vitale, who was playing as a third-line winger when he knocked knees with Blue Jackets forward Blake Comeau on Monday, could portend problems in the faceoff circle.
Of the team's four regular centers, Sutter was the only one to see an uptick in his performance from the regular season: He won 46 of 92 draws (50 percent) in the series, a 2.3 percent improvement from the regular season.
“That's always been something we try to pride ourselves on: the details of the game,” said center Sidney Crosby, whose performance saw a 1.8 percent (52.5 to 50.7) dip from the regular season.
Part of the reason the Penguins struggled to win draws was the opponent. Columbus ranked ninth in the NHL during the regular season with a 51.6 percent success rate on draws. The Penguins were 12th.
The Penguins' special teams faceoffs were especially problematic against Columbus.
On the power play, the Penguins won 48.1 percent (28 of 54) of draws, but that number dipped to 39.1 percent (18 of 46) when they were short-handed.
The splits get better when the Penguins' backs are against the wall.
Despite a 42.5 percent (34 of 80) success rate among regulars — Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Sutter, Vitale, Goc and winger Jussi Jokinen — in the offensive zone, the Penguins won 54.5 percent (66 of 121) of draws in the defensive zone, with Sutter winning a team-best 25 draws there.
“In the defensive zone, you have to bear down and try to get it,” Sutter said. “Offensive zone, it's more of an offensive chance. So, again, it's about puck possession.
“When you're losing faceoffs, you're chasing it from the start of every shift. Kind of goes that way all night. We need to do a better job.”
The return of Goc has afforded Bylsma some flexibility.
Not only did it allow Malkin to play wing on Crosby's line and Sutter to move from the third line to the second, it allowed Bylsma to play matchups when Goc, a left-handed shot, was paired with the right-handed shooting Vitale.
“It is an advantage to be able to put them both out there,” Bylsma said. “They're both capable of taking a draw, and depending on what side it's at, that's kind of the instruction: If it's your strong side and that's a good opponent for you, you take the draw and Joe will play wing and vice versa.”
The problem with that has been that Vitale's success rate has dipped from 62.5 percent in the regular season to 47.6 in the playoffs, a 14.9 percent decline. Goc's has gone from 57.3 to 54.2 for a 3.1 percent drop.
The Penguins will want to improve their faceoff work in Round 2.
“Faceoffs are always tough,” Sutter said. “They might go your way or not your way any night.
“It would be nice to get a better percentage.”
(Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.)