Matt Rust had just played a bad game, and Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson knew how to fix it.
Then-No. 2 Michigan had lost to Northern Michigan 2-0 in its third game of the 2008-09 season and Rust was 2-for-14 on faceoffs. Despite his performance, the team still finished the game 31-for-60 on the draw.
“I had to get all over him about his faceoffs,” Berenson said. “He didn’t have a good game. The next night he was wired, and he was (6-for-14). And he scored two goals and had a great game. It all starts with faceoffs.”
Berenson has made sure his players know the importance of face offs, and the players practice them weekly. As Rust saw firsthand, winning faceoffs can set the tone for a player’s game.
“I knew I would have a good game if I started by winning faceoffs,” Berenson said of his playing days. “Some players think they have to work hard or play the body. But with me it started with faceoffs. Because if you’re winning the faceoffs, it’s a bit of a one-on-one battle. It’s not just a skill thing. It’s a second effort thing, it’s being ready, it’s being focused and bearing down.”
Michigan has two centers that have experienced great success on the draw this season — Rust and junior Louie Caporusso. So far this season, Rust sports a 52 percent win percentage and Caporusso has an impressive 60 percent success rate through six games.
Those two players are powerful weapons in maintaining puck control. As the team struggles to find consistent third and fourth line centers, having veterans like Rust and Caporusso is even more valuable.
In a tight game, special teams can often be key. Lose a faceoff on the penalty kill, and the team can potentially give up a goal. Win one on the power play, and the team has a great chance to score. Knowing this importance, Berenson teaches technique and how to anticipate the other team’s moves.
“You should have an idea of what the other guy is trying to do so that you can go against him and make sure he doesn’t get his way on the draw,” Berenson said. “And sometimes it’s just a matter of you knowing exactly what you’re going to do and you can overpower him, you can out-quick him, you can out-second effort him. Sometimes you just lift his stick and kick the puck with your foot. There’s sort of a technique to it.”
Berenson said that Rust would be his choice for faceoffs in the defensive zone because of his role on the penalty kill, and Caporusso would be his pick for faceoffs in the attacking zone.
Both players will need to be in peak form for this weekend’s series against No. 1 Miami (Ohio) at Yost.
“As a team, we need to be on a 60-percent (success rate),” Rust said of his faceoff goals for the weekend. “Miami’s so talented offensively, you want to maintain the puck specifically on the (penalty) kill or on the PP.”
Rust and Caporusso have played against Miami forwards Carter Camper and Tommy Wingels on faceoffs before, and that familiarity is something that the centers will use to gain an advantage on the faceoff.
But it’s not an exact science.
“It’s kinda tough to tell,” Caporusso said of what it takes to be good at faceoffs. “Sometimes there’s going to be styles that just clash with your style and sometimes you’ve got to switch (the matchups) up. That’s what I’ve noticed playing in the NCAA — some guys I’ll clean out, and other guys I’ll use the same style and won’t do anything against them.”
Faceoff technique is something that can be adjusted even during games. The Wolverines monitor their faceoff statistics throughout games, and Berenson keeps an eye on them between periods to address a “glaring stat” for a key matchup on faceoffs later in the game.
Set plays are also important factors involved in faceoffs. Rust said that Michigan had three or four good scoring chances off of faceoffs in the Wolverines’ sweep of Lake Superior State last weekend. Those set plays had a large role last year, and Rust thinks it’s just a matter of time before they can take advantage of one of those opportunities in the attacking zone.
Miami features an attack that has four players who have tallied eight or more points through the team’s first eight games, including Camper and Wingels. Winning faceoffs could stifle that attack and provide an offensive advantage for the Wolverines.
“It just jacks it up to another level,” Berenson said. “When you look at Miami coming in this weekend you know every part of the game is going to be important. Faceoffs could be the difference in the game.”