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CHICAGO (AP) — The Chicago Blackhawks were down by one in the final seconds of the first period when Brad Richards approached the faceoff circle on the right side of Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne. The veteran center made a small motion to Duncan Keith to move up to his left side, and then got ready for the draw.
One deft poke by Richards moved the puck right to Keith, who touched it to Patrick Kane for a big goal in Chicago's series-clinching 4-3 victory in the first round. The critical sequence began with a simple faceoff that takes on added significance as NHL teams scrap for every possession in the heat of the playoffs.
"I think it's important all year, but no matter what team you're on, when you get to the playoffs, they're huge," Richards said, "because one goal like the other night, one goal could end your season."
Richards was 13 for 19 on faceoffs in Game 6 against Nashville, helping Chicago advance to the conference semifinals for the third straight year. While the Blackhawks were 10th in the NHL in faceoff percentage in the first round, three of the top four teams on the list also won their series.
"For me, personally, regular season, preseason, playoffs, faceoffs (are) one of those things that always gets overlooked a little bit: How important starting with the puck is," Washington coach Barry Trotz said.
The Capitals won an NHL-best 56 percent of their draws in the first round against the New York Islanders. The faceoff difference helped Washington advance in seven games, outscoring the Isles 16-15 overall.
The Rangers praised Washington's work in the circle ahead of their Eastern Conference semifinal, and then won 34 of 61 draws in Game 1 on Thursday night. But the Capitals won 2-1 when Joel Ward scored with 1.3 seconds left.
Besides the value of possession, which NHL teams appreciate more than ever in the league's golden age of statistical analysis, Capitals center Brooks Laich said there is a cumulative effect.
"If we win that faceoff and have the puck, usually that's 10 to 15 seconds where we will force them to face their own net to start a shift," Laich said. "And these things are incremental: In a 35- or 40-second shift, if you can start with 20 to 25 percent of that shift with the opposition facing their own net, that means they just don't have as much energy to go offensively. They can't sustain a real offensive forecheck, because they've spent a quarter of their shift already in their own zone.
"Those little things are incremental and they add up over a period, over a game, over a series."
Quick reflexes, practice and video work all go into becoming a consistent winner in the faceoff circle, and the wingers and defensemen also play a huge role in their positioning and how they compete for the puck. It helps to know your way around the league, ranging from the tendencies of opposing centers to how officials like to handle the draws.
"We work on it pretty much every practice," Minnesota center Charlie Coyle said. "It's something little, but it can play a huge part."
The repetition of a playoff series, when centers see each other over and over again in a short period, also can affect the approach in the circle.
"Faceoffs are always a constant adjustment and adaptation, trying to see what works and what doesn't work," said Dominic Moore, who centers the Rangers' fourth line and helps them kill penalties. "Your opponent is going to be adjusting and adapting as well. It's kind of a constant interplay that way."
Coyle and the Wild take on the Blackhawks in the Western Conference semifinals beginning on Friday night in Chicago. The Blackhawks have All-Star Jonathan Toews, Richards, Antoine Vermette and Marcus Kruger centering their four lines, and the Wild were successful on 47.1 percent of their draws in the first round against St. Louis for 12th in the NHL.
"They've got one of the best down the middle, and our guys have been playing really well," Minnesota winger Zach Parise said. "They've been doing a good job on draws and against these guys, draws are so important. Sometimes if you lose the draw you're not going to get the puck for 40 seconds and you just get off accomplishing nothing."
AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell, Howard Fendrich and Tom Canavan contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap
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