Pittsburgh Penguins left winger Jake Guentzel notched a goal-scorer’s goal Saturday against Tampa Bay. Won a faceoff, went to the net and tipped in a shot.
But did you notice the wrinkle? Sidney Crosby, the center on the line, didn’t get kicked out of the faceoff circle. Guentzel took the draw at the left dot as part of a pre-planned play. He drew the puck back to Crosby, who fed it to Kris Letang. It was Letang’s shot that Guentzel redirected under Lightning goaltender Brian Elliott in the third period of a 6-2 Penguins win.
Crosby has not been taking all the draws for his line, or on the power play, despite being the Penguins’ top center. Guentzel and the right winger on the top line, Rickard Rakell, have taken a handful of faceoffs. Again, by design.
“Just to have some options, switch things up a bit,” Crosby said Sunday after he participated in an optional practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
“We don’t plan on it being something that’s all the time — I’m a centerman. I think we’ll just kind of work back and forth for a little bit. We’ll see how it goes.”
It’s going OK so far through two games, both wins. Crosby, who has a career faceoff success rate of 52.7 percent, is clicking at 44.8 percent on 29 draws. Guentzel has won three of five, Rakell two of two.
And before this goes any further, Crosby was emphatic that this tweak has nothing to do with giving his left wrist a break. He had surgery on that wrist and missed the start of the season a year ago. He said the wrist, which was chronically cranky for years before the procedure, is fine.
Guentzel and Crosby are left-handed shots, so Rakell, a righty, occasionally takes a faceoff on his strong side.
A lot of the faceoff wrinkle has to do with Crosby. If he’s not taking the draw, perhaps he can be the recipient of a faceoff win, as with Guentzel’s goal Saturday.
“Anytime that we can have the puck in (Crosby’s) hands, it’s to our advantage,” Rakell said. “Just try to throw different curveballs to other teams. If they see that he’s lining up in a different way than usual, I’m sure that they’re going to start thinking more about defense and how they’re going to be able to break the puck out.”
Rakell smiled when asked about Guentzel’s goal after he took the faceoff Saturday.
“I’m sure giving them some different looks is to our advantage,” he said. “Maybe if (Crosby) is taking the faceoff, he might get different looks than if Jake is taking them. Jake is sneaky. He knows where to be to score goals.”
On power plays, Crosby has ceded the faceoff duties so far. As in, he has taken no draws with a man-advantage. Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins’ second-line center during five-on-five play, has taken 11 faceoffs on the power play, winning six of them.
The idea for the faceoff wrinkle didn’t come from the coaches.
“We leave that up the players on the ice,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “Sid’s playing with Jake and (Rakell). Both of those guys have played center (extensively in the past). They have a comfort level taking faceoffs. (Malkin), the same way on the power play.
“We leave it up to the players to decide. Sometimes they’re running different faceoff looks and things of that nature that they want certain players in certain positions.”
The strong guess here is that a certain long-tenured captain is the genesis of the idea, even if he downplayed that notion.
“Just something we talked about,” Crosby said. “I just talked to (Guentzel), and then (Rakell) has taken some, too, on his strong side. It’s just something we talked about as a line.”
One that just happens to be loaded with offensive talent and centered by one of the game’s premier hockey minds.