Tied 1-1 with rival Minnesota-Duluth midway through the second period Jan. 14, Gophers junior Jen Schoullis skated into the faceoff circle for the most common play in hockey.
The referee paused and then dropped the puck. Schoullis boxed out the opposing center and slid the puck to a waiting Megan Bozek.
Bozek fired a shot that cleared the first wave of UMD players. Slashing in front of the net, forward Sarah Erickson tipped the puck, directing it past Bulldogs goalie Jennifer Harass to give the Gophers a 2-1 lead.
While the Gophers ultimately played UMD to a 2-2 tie, the goal highlighted an oft-overlooked strength of this Minnesota team: winning faceoffs.
The Gophers own a .563 faceoff win percentage this season, their highest mark in that category since the 2007-08 season. It’s a mark that head coach Brad Frost says is crucial to the team’s success.
“That’s arguably been one of the biggest things for our team,” Frost said after that game. “When you can win draws and then maintain possession, that’s a big deal.”
One of the few stationary moments in the 60 minutes of a hockey game, the faceoff represents a possible change in possession, advantageous ice position for one team and presents opportunities to make plays in transition. By winning the faceoff a team is rewarded, at least in the offensive zone, with a quick scoring opportunity. Lose it, and the other team has the opportunity for an offensive rush.
“You have that puck, so you can make a play,” Frost said. “You lose the draw, and all of a sudden you don’t, so being able to get the puck and maintaining possession should create some opportunities.”
Leading the Gophers in faceoff winning percentage is freshman center Sarah Davis. Davis has won 364 of her 571 (.637) face-offs, a mark that most NHL players would envy.
“I look at every faceoff as a battle where I can help my team.” Davis said. “[I] go into every faceoff with an intensity, and it’s not just me, it’s also my wingers … They really do a good job getting into the ‘D’ or getting into the net.”
Davis said the mark is due to an intensity the team brings to the circle.
“We went through a stage where we really focused on faceoffs and the draw to really get possession of the puck.” Davis said. “It’s just transferred over to these past couple months. That’s why we’re so successful.”
Davis’ tenacity on the draw was rewarded last weekend against Wisconsin. With the Gophers down 2-1 early in the third period, Davis won a draw in the offensive zone and slid the puck to freshman Kelly Terry, who tied the game with a back-door goal.
Saturday’s crowd a learning experience
While the Gophers will most likely not see a crowd as large as the one they played in front of against Wisconsin last weekend, Frost said that it was a great learning experience for his team.
“We haven’t been in front of a crowd of more than 3,000.” He said. “It bodes well now that we’ve had that experience, and we should be able to use it down the stretch.”
The crowd of 10,668 was the biggest crowd the Gophers have played in front of by more than 8,000 people this season.
The Gophers are down in attendance this season at home, averaging 848 per game this season, after averaging 1,126 fans per game last season.
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