This weekend’s hockey series against Quinnipiac resulted in a
pair of one-goal wins for Michigan. The game-winning goals came
late in the third period of both games – from Brandon Kaleniecki
Friday and Jeff Tambellini Saturday. But coach Red Berenson feels
the game was won even before the puck touched either player’s
stick.

“(Quinnipiac) lost the two games because of two faceoffs,”
Berenson said. “That’s what the whole weekend came down to was
faceoffs.”

To the casual observer, the faceoff is a frequent occurrence in
the average hockey game and hardly ever has any true implications
on the game’s outcome. With an average of 60-75 faceoffs in a game,
it’s easy to see how such a frequent play can make a
difference.

“Most fans don’t understand the importance of a faceoff,”
forward T.J. Hensick said. “Most fans wouldn’t expect that faceoff
I took to have importance like it did in that game.”

Hensick was referring to a faceoff win he had in Saturday’s game
that fed Tambellini, who was lined up behind him along the
blueline. Thanks to the clean win and a screen set up by Eric
Nystrom, Tambellini fired a shot that turned out to be the
game-winner and completed his hat trick.

“To have a guy battling like T.J. in the middle and Nystrom
blocking in front, it’s huge to have someone playing that role in
the middle,” Tambellini said. “Coach talks everyday in the dressing
room about how important (faceoffs) are, and that won us the game
(Saturday).”

Berenson’s commitment to faceoffs was the difference this
weekend, as Kaleniecki’s game-winning goal on Friday came off a
faceoff taken by Andrew Ebbett. Both Ebbett and Hensick were quick
to point out it takes more than luck to win the faceoff. The skill
involved requires stealing the puck from the opponent and also
attempting to set up a linemate for a scoring chance at the same
time.

“A lot of fans think you just put your stick down and someone
wins,” Ebbett said. “Quickness helped me last weekend, as both
those guys were a little bit slower, so I tried to use my
quickness.”

But superior reaction speed is not always enough, sometimes it
comes down to outsmarting the opponent.

“It comes from being able to know your opponent, knowing what
he’s going to do and to set up differently,” Hensick said. “Clean
wins come from quickness and skill.”

What makes the faceoff even more difficult to master is that it
can’t be practiced as well as other drills in hockey. Centermen
typically practice faceoffs after regular practice is over, so the
responsibility falls on the individual to hone his skills.
Sometimes, groups of players will try to create set plays for
faceoffs in hopes they will experience a similar situation during
the weekend.

“We go over faceoff plays (after practice),” Hensick said. “We
have a few different ones we use, but you have to win the faceoff
in order for that play to work.

“We definitely have a play (similar to Saturday). Tambellini and
I have been trying to work on it all year, and it finally worked
and it worked at a good time for us.”

As the Wolverines return to conference action this weekend
against Northern Michigan, faceoffs should prove to be an even
bigger key to pulling out another pair of victories. Simply using
speed might not be enough against CCHA opponents, as the quality of
player is much higher.

“Other guys in the CCHA play a lot stronger, and you have to
outsmart them,” Ebbett said. “I think it’s more reading the other
guy. If you know where he’s going, then you can block his stick
out.”

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