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To beat the Predators and succeed in the playoffs in general, the Canucks must improve on faceoffs

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Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
1 month ago
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The Vancouver Canucks head into Game 6 of Round One of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Nashville Predators with a 3-2 series lead chance to eliminate them and move on to Round Two.
Of course, they entered into Game 5 with a 3-1 series lead and the same opportunity, and we all know how that went. So any apprehension heading into Friday night’s matchup is all too understandable.
Much ink has been spilled about what the Canucks have struggled or failed to do in this series. Most of it has centered around their inability to generate shots and chances, which is really more a reflection of the Predators’ uncanny ability to de-generate shots and chances. But there’s another thing that the Canucks will have to improve upon if they’re going to move on from the Predators and then theoretically move even further on in the postseason, and that’s an improvement on the dot.
Yes, we’re talking faceoffs.
Faceoffs were perhaps an underrated strength of the Canucks in the 2023/24 regular season. They won 52.1% of them, good enough for eighth place in the league overall. The Canucks trailed the league-leading Pittsburgh Penguins (54.6%) by just 2.5%, and were ahead of the league-worst Buffalo Sabres (45.0%) by more than 7%.
The script has flipped for the playoffs, however. In Round One against Nashville, the Canucks have won just 49.0% of the faceoffs. It doesn’t take an Oppenheimer to know, then, that the Predators have won the other 51.0%.
Which isn’t far off their own regular season record. This year, the Predators won 50.4% of their faceoffs prior to the playoffs, which was 16th in the league and not too far behind the Canucks.
Nashville’s faceoff success rate has only ticked up 0.6%. The Canucks has tanked by 3.1%.
All of which sounds very marginal. But these are the playoffs, and the playoffs are where marginal counts.
We at CanucksArmy have been known to discount the importance of faceoffs before. And, in the grand scheme of things, we still mostly stand to it. From a macro view, faceoffs just don’t correlate to winning hockey very often. You’ve probably already noted that the league-leading Pittsburgh Penguins did not make the postseason. Nor did the third place New Jersey Devils. The 28th place Washington Capitals, with their 46.7% rate, did make the postseason.
But on a more micro view, a game-by-game, moment-by-moment basis, faceoffs do matter. We’ve all watched games in which a key draw leads to a scoring chance which leads to a goal which shifts the entirety of the game. It happens all the time. Faceoffs can, and do, win and lose individual games.
And what is a playoff series but a (relatively short) collection of individual games?
We think faceoffs probably particularly matter in this particular series. Think back to the more major issue at play when it comes to the Canucks beating the Preds. It’s getting shots through to the net. The Predators are shot-blocking, lane-interrupting, guts-of-the-ice-gumming specialists, and it has harmed the Canucks’ ability to show off their offensive superiority.
What would a couple of more faceoff wins do for them? Well, if they’re offensive zone draws won cleanly, they’d create an immediate opportunity to get a shot through or start a play before Nashville has the time to set up their defence. Enough of such opportunities, and goals inevitably happen.
A goal or two more happen, and Vancouver probably doesn’t even need to hop on a plane to Tennessee for Game 6.
There is an element of matching up here. The Canucks have a 50.9% win-rate in their four home games against the Predators, where head coach Rick Tocchet enjoys the last change. In their two road games thus far, however, the Canucks have won 46.3% (though it is worth noting that road teams have been getting spanked on faceoffs in general this playoff season.)
It’s not just the Vancouver v. Nashville matchup, team-wise. The Canucks smoked the Preds in that regard in the regular season. In their first matchup back in October, the Predators won 55.1% of the draws. A week later, however, the Canucks won 61.7% of them. Then, in their third and final regular season meeting in December, the Canucks won 55.4%.
All three were Vancouver victories.
Instead, it probably comes down to some key individuals. After all, only one player on each team takes a faceoff at a time.
The Canucks’ four current centres ranked like this in the regular season: Elias Lindholm (58.7%), JT Miller (56.3%), Teddy Blueger (53.1%),  and then Elias Pettersson (50.8%). Each had a winning record.
In the playoffs thus far, it goes Miller (54.6%), Lindholm (51.1%), Pettersson (46.9%), and then Blueger at a dreadful 27.3%. In fact, Sam Lafferty (47.8%) has been taking many faceoffs for Blueger, which makes us suspect some sort of injury.
Regardless, to a man, they’ve all seen a drop-off in faceoff success.
The Predators, meanwhile, haven’t exactly stepped it up. Ryan O’Reilly was always good, and has maintained his regular season pace of 53.2% with a playoff rate of 52.2%.
Michael McCarron (53.2%-50.0%) and Colton Sissons (52.6%-48.3%) have seen notable drops.
It seems to come down to the contributions of one Mark Jankowski, really. The player who former Canuck executive John Weisbrod called the best player of his draft year has been the best player in the faceoff dot this series.
Regular season Jankowski won 50.3% of his faceoffs. But Playoff Jankowski has won 62.5% of them, a 20-12 record that includes at least a few draws at key moments.
Again, we’re talking small margins here. A matter of percentages. A faceoff here and there.
But the Canucks lost Game 5 by a single goal. The margins matter here, and they’re going to continue to matter as the Canucks try to seal off Game 6 and then move on to the Edmonton Oilers in the second round.
Whether they’re ready to claim it or not, the puck drops shortly all the same.
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