When it comes to face-offs, the Panthers are making sure they are doing all the little things to come out on top.
Take, as perfect example, the first period against Buffalo on Sunday.
Florida found themselves trailing early in the game thanks to a goal off the stick of Sabres forward Tomas Vanek but that all changed in the matter of two seconds 8:36 into the contest thanks to an extremely clean face-off win by Jerred Smithson back to Shawn Matthias. The forward, who was set up behind and to the right of Smithson, one-timed a blast past Sabres netminder Ryan Miller to knot the score and eventually help lead the Cats to their second straight comeback victory of the season.
"Smitty is unbelievable in the dot at face-offs. He said he had a feeling and I guess his feeling was right," said Matthias to Fox Sports Florida during the first period intermission Sunday. "I mean I couldn't have asked for a better pass."
For Florida, that face-off win epitomizes their success in the circles. Eight games into their season, and they have the fourth best record in the face-off circle, winning 53.2%. In only two games (both Ottawa contests) have the Panthers not won the face-off battle. And it's not just the winning percentage, but the fact that Florida seems to win all the critical draws. Whether it's in the defensive zone, the neutral zone or the offensive zone and whether it's trailing by a goal in the first period or looking to close out a game with a one goal lead.
Over the last four games, they've been plus-38 in face-off wins and losses and while that has only helped in two victories, the draw is where it all starts.
"It's just knowing the importance of starting with the puck," said Smithson. "Players in this league are so good, if you don't win that face-off, there's a chance you don't see the puck for the rest of the shift."
Each of the Panthers centers have done well so far this season. Smithson has recorded a 58.5% win rate, Marcel Goc has posted a 57.6% winning percentage while Tomas Kopecky has won 53.4% and Stephen Weiss has won the puck on 50.6%.
And then there's rookie Drew Shore who has been extremely difficult to beat in the circle as he has won 63.5% of his face-off draws (52 opportunities), good enough for seventh best in the league for players that have had at least 45 opportunities. Shore gives credit to his fellow centers as well as his approach.
"They've kind of helped me and you pick out the little things from different guys," said Shore on his success. "It's something, especially after turning pro last year, you realize how an impact little things like that can impact a game...if you think of 10 more puck possessions for your team throughout the night, it's obviously an important thing."
"You can tell by the way he goes in there, he takes a lot of pride and wants to win those draws, like everyone," said Smithson. "He's doing well and hopefully he continues that."
A big part in the success is the play of the Panthers centers, but that's definitely not the entire reason.
"We talk about it before the game and at practice, the importance of helping out the center men," said Smithson. "It's not just a centerman's stat. It's the wingers, the d-man, helping out and taking that extra second to start with that puck."
Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen certainly sees that desire to win the puck.
"I think we have a lot of information to get the players but our will to win those face-offs is extremely strong," said Dineen. "I think that's the difference"
Having that mentality to win the draw, and hold the "keys" to the game is a strong desire for the Cats. It's something that the Panthers, especially the centers, want to continue, especially since it will give them a greater chance to come out with the victory.
"We've got some great centermen here in the locker room that take a lot of pride in the face-offs," said Smithson. "We really push each other in practice and talk about it and try to make ourselves better."
"You go in and think every face-off is a big face-off, I think that's a menality thing," said Shore. "That's something I've really tried to focus on this year, whether it's a face-off in the first period in the neutral zone, if you're going in there thinking it's 1-1 with a minute left in the game, you have to win the draw.
"So I think from a mentality (standpoint it) is pretty big on that."
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