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Get to know: Faceoffs

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Faceoffs are an important part of a game, but how well do you know the ins and outs of dropping the puck?

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a part of the game many of us view but we might not have a grasp on how it really works. It’s nothing more than a column in a statistics table that you might glance over without giving it a second thought. It’s how games are started, and restarted after a whistle. It pits 2 men or women against each other in a battle of quick hands and physicality. At times, it can be a giant mess. It can also be quick and clean. We’re talking of course, about the faceoff.

Faceoffs, in their most simplistic rules, are pretty basic in nature. Find a predetermined spot on the ice, drop the puck.

Right away you get something a lot of people might not have known. Turns out a goalie cannot take a faceoff. I’m not certain just why on Earth you would want your goalie to take the draw. They do carry a big stick which would be advantageous in the dot, but you would be taking quite the risk should they lose.

There has got to be more to it than that though, right? We see players getting kicked out of the dot all the time. Refs drop the puck and immediately wave it off, but why?

We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here. First, lets take a look at the anatomy of a faceoff circle. Now, on the ice sheet, there are 9 faceoff dots. There are 2 dots in each teams defensive zone (4 total) which have the most markings around them. There are another 4 in the neutral zone, each 5 feet off the blue lines and 22 feet from an imaginary line running down the center of the ice the long way, or 20 feet 6 inches off the wall. Of course, there is the dot right in the middle of the ice as well, used to start each period and after a goal is scored as well as for some rare situations in game.

Anatomy of the faceoff dots in either teams defensive zone.

The above diagram is the most complex of any of the faceoff dots on the ice. It has all these goofy right angles, and a circle in the middle that’s not totally filled in. That lazy fill in the circle job would earn you a wrong answer on one of those old school #2 pencil bubble tests.

The horizontal lines that right angle into vertical lines where the skaters stand do serve a purpose. Each skaters skate blades must be on the outside of those lines. You cannot have both skates on one side or the other. Now those lazy filled in circles right in the middle, the unfilled portion is where the players must place their sticks before the puck gets dropped. If a player violates either of those stipulations it can result in the player being kicked out of the circle. Crossing into the circle, or making contact with the opposing player can also get you booted from the dot. The refs do have discretion to warn players first, but any violation is grounds for dismissal.

Each faceoff takes place after the line change procedure has finished. This would be indicated by the referee at center ice who lowers his hand to indicate the line changes are done. At this point, the linesmen will blow his whistle to alert both teams they have no more than 5 seconds to take their positions for the draw. In the final 2 minutes of each period, the 5 second rule is not enforced. Players however must adhere to the linesmen’s verbal instructions to ensure the faceoffs are taken in a timely manner.

Once the line change procedure has finished, that is it for changing out players until after the puck is dropped. The lone caveat to that would be if there was a penalty which affects the number of players for either side. If the referee notices the defending team does not have enough players on the ice, they will instruct the team which committed the penalty they need to get another skater out there before the draw is taken. For the attacking team in those situations, no such luck. If you’re on the PP and only ice 4 players in what would otherwise be a 5 on 4 advantage, it is up to you to get the appropriate amount of players on the ice. If the line change procedure is finished, and you haven’t placed 5 skaters on the ice, you must wait until the puck is dropped before icing the final player.

One of the newer rules in the NHL surrounds who must place their stick down on the ice first. Previously, it was the away team in all situations were required to place their sticks on the ice. Now, if the draw is occurring on your defensive side of the center line, you must have your stick down first. If the draw is occurring at center ice, then the away team would be required to put their sticks down first.

If you arrive at the dot as the 5 second time limit comes to an end in an effort to use your momentum as an advantage, you can be tossed from the faceoff circle as well. Both players must be stationary prior to the draw to ensure the faceoff is taken in the fairest way possible. Moving early will result in the center being removed from the faceoff dot as well. Once a player is tossed from the faceoff circle, a new player must arrive in a timely manner. If any one team is assessed 2 infractions on any given faceoff, it will be ruled as a bench minor, 2 minutes for delay of game.

The only instance where a player would not be tossed for breaking the rules of the faceoff would be after an icing. The center for the team that iced the puck would instead be given a warning. This is to crack down on teams intentionally taking a faceoff infraction in order to get kicked from the circle and getting their team a little extra rest. Instead, the center is warned, but he must remain in the dot to take the draw as soon as possible.

Now, besides getting 2 faceoff violations to earn a minor penalty, any player who uses their hands to bat the puck or touch it in any way would constitute a minor as well. Hand passes are not allowed in the faceoff circle, until after another player touches the puck, at which time the normal hand pass rules take effect.

Around the outside of the bigger circle in either teams end of the ice, you’ll notice another set of hash marks on either side of said circle. Those are the markers for the wingers positions. No other players may enter the circle prior to the puck being dropped, and players must remain on their side of the hash marks as well. No contact is allowed with the opposition prior to a draw. Now we’ve all seen plenty of faceoffs where this part of the rule book is not enforced. Referees tend to blow the faceoff dead and warn the players first, and will only rarely boot the center from the dot due to another player violating the positioning rules.

Besides the 4 dots, the 2 on either teams side of the ice, there are no such markings around the rest of the faceoff dots. The 4 in the neutral zone are just a plain dot while the one at center has the center stripe and a circle, but nothing more. Prior to a draw, no player besides the one taking the face can be within 15 feet of the dot. When these draws occur in the neutral zone, it is up to the referee to enforce the positioning and adjust the players who may be attempting to sneak in a bit closer to help out their center.

Determining where to drop the puck

Things get a little goofy here. How do you know where to drop the puck? We are all pretty well aware of some of the situations. If a goalie freezes the puck, the faceoff is in his zone in the circle closest to where the puck was frozen. To start a period or after a goal is scored, you faceoff from center ice. If your team enters the offensive zones offsides, the faceoff is in the neutral zone in the faceoff dot closest to where the puck was carried into the zone. If your team is awarded a power play, the ensuing faceoff will be in the defensive zone of the team who committed the penalty. Pretty straight forward, right?

Lets say you play the puck into the offensive zone offsides by a hand pass. In situations like that, where there are 2 or more non-minor or major penalty infractions, the faceoff would move into a position that offers the least territorial advantage to the offending team. This would mean at the faceoff dots in the neutral zone closest to your defensive zone.

If play is stopped for no good reason, at no fault of either team while the puck is in the neutral zone, like a puck is deflected out of bounds, the draw would then occur at the nearest dot in the neutral zone. If there is not any certainty around which spot would be the nearest, then you really start to see that home ice advantage because the puck will be dropped in the most advantageous position for the home team, in the neutral zone.

With a pending penalty, there are some situations that would cause the faceoff to not occur in the team being penalized’s defensive zone. If the non-offending team scores a goal, of course the penalty is considered served and the draw goes to center ice. The draw would also occur at center ice if the period ends before the penalty is assessed. Also, if the non-offending team ices the puck before the penalty is called, the faceoff would occur in the neutral zone nearest the team icing the pucks defensive zone.

The faceoff would also come out to the neutral zone nearest the non-offending teams end if there is a scrum that breaks out in which a defensemen or point-man skates down past the dot in their offensive zone. The don’t even have to get involved in the scrum, but getting too close to it can cause the refs to pull the draw outside of the team being penalized’s defensive zone. This also applies for non-penalty stoppages like the goalie freezing the puck and a little extra-curricular activities break out in front of him. If both teams are being penalized, the faceoff would be taken at the nearest dot in the neutral zone to where the puck is when the whistle is blown.

Now what if you score a goal, but the puck deflected off one of the referees? Well, the goal doesn’t count first of all. The draw would also be taken at the nearest dot from where the puck was deflected. You shoot the puck from your defensive zone with an empty net and it deflects off a ref at center ice and into the goal? The draw would then occur at center ice. If you were to score a goal illegally (ie. kicking the puck in), the draw then comes out to the neutral zone to the nearest dot from where the illegal goal was scored.

If a team is in the process of pulling their goalie, and the substitution jumps onto the ice too early (which by rule is if the goalie is beyond 5 feet from the bench), the play will be blown dead for a premature substitution. There is no minor penalty assessed for this, but there would be a faceoff. If the puck has already crossed center ice for the attacking team, the draw would be brought back to the center faceoff circle. If the puck has not yet crossed the center line, the draw would then occur at the nearest dot to the puck when the whistle is blown.

Faceoffs can be tricky business. There are a lot of little rules to the procedure that may or may not always be enforced. As with many things in hockey, the referees discretion plays a role in how the draws are taken. One game you might get a ref that's a stickler for the players outside the circles positions, and another not so much. Teams need to be prepared to adjust to the refs style and discretion in every game.

The faceoff is an important part of the game. It determines who gets possession and thus who gets to control the attack initially. Teams which are more successful in the faceoff tend to carry an advantage in the game, but this of course doesn't always translate to wins. I hope this not-so-brief explanation helps you further understand how the game is started, and re-started countless times throughout the game.