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Goals, assists, penalty minutes, shots on net, saves, wins, losses and ties. They make up the vital statistics of hockey.

Overlooked on stat sheets until the NHL recently began publishing them were faceoffs. There are 60 to 70 draws in an average hockey game. Center Michael Peca took 2,463 draws for the Buffalo Sabres during the 1998-99 regular season and playoffs. If each one took 10 seconds (a conservative estimate), it meant Peca spent nearly seven hours lined up to take draws.

Numerically, at least, faceoffs are a major element in the sport, but how important are they strategically?

It depends on the situation.

The Sabres lost the majority of draws in all three series, but managed to take out Ottawa, Boston and Toronto in last year's playoffs. That indicates that winning faceoffs is not always vital.

On the other hand, the Dallas Stars' ability to win 56 percent of the faceoffs against the Sabres in the Stanley Cup finals might have spelled the difference between the teams. Dallas won 79 of 142 (65.23 percent) of the faceoffs in their Game Six overtime series clincher, the infamous "No Goal" game.

"When you get deeper into the playoffs you run into teams that are good at faceoffs because they've got great all-around players with a lot of skills, and that includes faceoffs," Peca said. "Especially Dallas. They've got two of the best faceoff men in the league in Mike Modano and Joe Nieuwendyk."

Between them, Nieuwendyk and Modano won 663 of the 1,142 faceoffs (58.1 percent) they took in the playoffs last year, according to NHL statistics. They ranked 1-2 in faceoff wins in the postseason.

During the regular season, Nieuwendyk ranked No. 1 (740 won, 430 lost) in the league with his 63.24 success rate among players who took at least 500 draws. Modano won 51.14 percent of his.

The Sabres made the playoffs and got to the Stanley Cup finals in spite of ranking only 23rd in the league in faceoff success during the regular season. Philadelphia, Washington and Dallas stood 1-2-3 in the regular season in team faceoff percentage.

"It's definitely an area where we have to improve," Sabres associate coach Don Lever said. "We started stressing it halfway through last year and we improved. I think we did a much better job through the playoffs."

There are situations in the game where faceoff success is especially vital.

"The important times are when you're in your own zone or the offensive zone and special teams. That's when you want to be winning the faceoffs the majority of the time," Lever said. "Special teams is where we didn't fare very well, especially on the power play. On the power play it is very important to get possession of the puck off the draw."

Lever believes the Sabres will be improved on power-play draws this year because Stu Barnes is with the team from the start. Barnes led the Sabres with a 51.27 winning percentage on the power play, but that was for only 17 games after he came in a trade from Pittsburgh. He captured the draw on 26 of 48 (54.1 percent) attempts in man-advantage situations.

"Stu Barnes is our best guy right now," Lever said. "He's added a little more to the power play, winning faceoffs. He's really an adequate faceoff guy. Pittsburgh used him a lot on faceoffs. We will win probably 50 percent of the faceoffs. Once we started harping on it we got better and it's something we've got to practice more."

Besides Peca, centers Brian Holzinger, Curtis Brown and Wayne Primeau take most of the faceoffs for Buffalo. Barnes plays mostly as a wing, but has NHL experience as a center.

"Sometimes faceoffs are a hard-work thing and a little bit of luck, too," Barnes said. "You can be on a hot streak but the situation changes from one game to the next."

Besides game situations and location on the ice, faceoff men have to adjust to other variables -- left-handed or right-handed opponents, big powerful centers such as Eric Lindros and Mats Sundin, savvy veterans such as Ron Francis of Carolina and Guy Carbonneau of Dallas or smaller, quicker pivots such as Doug Gilmour of Chicago and Steve Yzerman of Detroit.

"I think for me, I'm more comfortable drawing to my backhand," Barnes said. "I'm a right-handed shot. . . . but your approach can change on every faceoff."

Because he is on the ice in so many key situations, Peca gets a lot of important draws, usually against the best faceoff men in the league.

"Usually your best faceoff guys are pretty good defensive forwards," Lever said.

The Buffalo captain has had to deal with different approaches from opponents.

"There's a lot of variety out there," Peca said. "Lindros is a guy that goes for power. He just goes for the puck and will take it right through your stick, whereas a guy like Gilmour will crack you and slide down your stick and try to out-quick you. It's two different styles, two different players, and they're both effective."

Peca is a right-hand shooter and says he enjoys a little more success against lefties but has no favorites.

In recent years, the NHL has been enforcing more strictly the rules regarding the placement of the skates of players taking a draw. It's harder to cheat, but not impossible.

"The better faceoff guys are still guys who can find ways to cheat, whether it's getting a little bit of a head start or what," Peca said. "Certainly, cheating is a big part of winning faceoffs. You can only win a certain amount clean. There are a lot of guys that are either not putting the stick down or coming up before the puck is dropped and tying you up so you can't get at it. If they (the linesmen) don't stop it, it's effective."

Sometimes good footwork comes in handy. Peter Zezel, a former soccer player who has played for several NHL teams, uses his skates as well as his strength to gain an edge in scrambled faceoffs.

"A lot of it is concentration," said Lever, who adds that experience is a factor, too. The Sabres' Primeau is a young center who has had some success last season against certain opponents.

"With a guy like Primeau -- a big, strong guy -- it's knowing what to do. Like, instead of going to your forehand all the time, go to the backhand once in a while."

Peca believes that desire is as important as concentration, experience, quickness, strength and anticipation in making an effective faceoff specialist.

"I think if you look at the better faceoff guys in the league they are certainly guys who pride themselves on their faceoffs and probably work on it a great deal," he said.

Faceoff men can practice their art, but it's not always easy simulating game situations in practice.

"You just drop the puck with your teammates and have little competitions with each other," Peca said. "Even as much as you practice with guys on your team and work on your own things, there are guys around the league that do different things that are hard to prepare for.

"For example, Nieuwendyk and Francis like to tie the stick up. Except for Domenic Pittis, we don't have guys on our team that like to do that, so it's hard to practice against it."

Centers Nieuwendyk, Modano, Francis, Yzerman, Washington's Adam Oates, the New York Rangers' Tim Taylor and Chicago's Mark Janssens are some of the NHL's better faceoff men. But a winger, Theoren Fleury (now of the Rangers), won 59 percent of his 667 draws for Calgary and Colorado last season.

Teeder Kennedy and Dave Keon of Toronto, Stan Mikita (Chicago Blackhawks), Ken Linseman (Flyers and Bruins) and Bobby Clarke (Flyers) were some of the more effective faceoff men in the NHL's past. Oddly enough, Wayne Gretzky, regarded by most as the best player ever, was nothing special on faceoffs.

"It wasn't that he was awful," Lever said. "It's just that they (the Edmonton Oilers) would use Mark Messier before they'd use him."

Buffalo's best over the years was probably Don Luce, now the team's director of player personnel. Brent Peterson, who played for 2 1/2 seasons in a Sabres uniform, was also very good.

In nearly three decades in the NHL, Lever has seen most of the good ones either as a player or a coach.

His vote for the best?

"Derek Sanderson -- that's probably the best faceoff guy I've ever seen."

Sanderson's knack of winning faceoffs was a big factor in the Boston Bruins winning two Stanley Cups (1970 and 1972). It would have been interesting to know what Sanderson's winning percentage was on draws, but, alas, the NHL did not keep -- or at least did not publish -- faceoff statistics back then.

Now they do, and faceoff stats may come out of the shadows and become one of the numbers worth watching.

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