It was the Cully and Sully show early in the Pittsburgh Penguins practice Wednesday, with development coach Matt Cullen and head coach Mike Sullivan working with some of the team’s centers on faceoffs at center ice.
“It’s super helpful,” Penguins rookie Sam Lafferty said. “Those guys both know a lot about faceoffs. Just some little things here and there that make a big difference. It’s something we’ve been working on, and I think we’ll just keep getting better at it.”
It’s not unusual for Sullivan to offer tips on faceoffs. Cullen’s post-playing job has him traveling a lot, but when he’s in town one of his assigned missions is to draw on his more than two decades of playing in the NHL – including two Stanley Cups with the Penguins — to help the centers working on faceoffs.
Being in town “was part of his routine, but when he is here, that’s certainly part of the responsibility that I have asked him to spend time on,” Sullivan said.
“He’s doing it both on the ice with the guys, but also off the ice in watching video with them and trying to give them different strategies and some ideas and things to think about and how we can get better in that aspect of the game.”
The Penguins rank 20th in the NHL with a faceoff winning percent of 49.2. Faceoffs, of course, are critical because teams gain or lose possession of the puck with every one.
“We’re trying to get better at that nuance of the game,” Sullivan said. “It’s an important aspect of the game. We know that’s an area where we can improve.
“It’s an area of the game we believe we can get better at. (Cullen) was a really good center iceman in all the years that he played, and a smart center iceman as far as some of the strategies that he deployed over the years against different opponents. I think he has the ability to share his experience with some of our younger centermen – or all of our centermen, for that matter.”
Well, perhaps not Evgeni Malkin, at least not Wednesday during the on-ice portion of the faceoff lesson.
With the team broken up into different groups early on – for instance, assistant Sergei Gonchar was working at one end with the defensemen – Malkin essentially skated figure eights around the faceoff lessons at center ice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
In his defense, Malkin is winning faceoffs at a 54.2 percent clip, by far better than he’s ever done before.
For the others – Lafferty, Teddy Blueger and Jared McCann were the main pupils – the art of taking faceoffs was about tweaks as much as anything.
“It’s just little things — if the other guy does a certain thing, maybe try something,” Lafferty said. “Some of it’s just experimenting, too, seeing what works for you.”
It used to be that an experienced faceoff mentor might teach young players ways to subtly cheat at the dot. Now, however, if two centers successively get thrown out of a faceoff, it’s a penalty. It has happened to the Penguins this season, and it happened to their opponent, the Montreal Canadiens, Tuesday night.
Lafferty said there are still things someone such as Cullen can pass along.
“He was someone who did it for such a long time and was so successful at it. He knows some of the little tricks of the trade. Just little subtle tweaks that make a big difference,” Lafferty said.
Using slightly different hand positioning on the stick, for instance.
“Even stuff like that goes a long way,” Lafferty said. “He was a master at it for a long time. He’s got such a good feel.”
Perhaps the only guy with not much to gain in the faceoff session Wednesday and others like it on other days is goaltender coach Mike Buckley, who dropped the pucks. A few times, he got clipped, leaving him shaking his hand in pain.
“He’s always the one that drops,” Lafferty said. “He’s game. He’s willing to do it. He’ll maybe be as good as a linesman someday.”