Manny Malhotra rests his stick on his knees, focused in on the puck in the linesman’s hand. The linesman inches nearer to the dot, and Malhotra drapes his hands lower, his body following suit. His legs spread wide, his back essentially parallel to the ice. The linesman drops the puck, and Malhotra offers a vigorous, calculated swipe at the frozen, rubber biscuit.
More often than not, Malhotra will win possession of the puck for his team.
“There are so many important parts of the game that go hidden sometimes, like faceoffs. It’s valuable that he’s able to be so successful at it,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “It’s all about possession and starting a shift off with the puck. The more times you win faceoffs, that’s one more time that you start your shift with the puck.
“It’s especially important in your zone,” Muller continued. “[Winning the faceoff] saves you from spending [more] time in your zone trying to get pucks out and playing defensive zone coverage. If you win the draw, you can get it out and get playing down in the other end.”
Since he joined the Canes at the outset of November, Malhotra has won 152 of the 252 faceoffs he’s taken, a 60.3 percent success rate, which ranks fourth in the NHL among players who have taken at least 200 draws.
As a team, the Hurricanes had the faceoff edge in 10 straight games to begin November and have been even or a faceoff or two from it in all but one of the games since.
Muller said being on the right side of the faceoff numbers doesn’t necessarily equate to two points, but it is typically indicative of a team’s battle level on any given night.
“It’s not only the centers that win the faceoffs. A lot of it is wingers helping out and winning the loose pucks. All that translates into a draw that you win or lose,” he said. “It’s not perfect but generally, if you’re winning faceoffs, your team is competing at a high level that night.”
Malhotra brings a high compete level to each and every draw, one of the reasons that he’s so successful in the dot, according to assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour.
“He’s strong, number one. Number two, he’s done it so much. With faceoffs, generally, guys who are good at it are experienced. It’s a timing thing, and you’ve really got to time it from a linesman’s perspective and understand what he’s doing. Every linesman is kind of different on the way they drop,” Brind’Amour said. “And three, the fact that he takes it seriously. He bears down on every one.”
Stylistically, Malhotra is one of the more unique faceoff men in the league. It’s something that he’s assembled throughout his career, an amalgam of different techniques accrued from working with players like Mike Modano, Pierre Turgeon and Muller.
“It’s something I developed that makes me feel more comfortable, and I’ve just kind of gone with it,” Malhotra said. “You stick with what works, I guess.”
Malhotra traces the origin of his rather low stance to his nearly two calendar years spent in Dallas.
“Mike Modano was quite low, so I started to get a bit lower to see if that helped, and I saw the benefits of it,” Malhotra said. “I think it kind of started from there, and then I tweaked it and worked with it and made it fit my game.”
The benefits of the low stance? That’s something that won’t leave the ice.
“I’m not going to talk to you about that,” Malhotra said with a wry smile. “It’s a trade secret.”
A look at Malhotra’s career faceoff numbers shows a distinct up-tick in his winning percentage beginning in the 2003-04 season. From the 2005-06 season onward, Malhotra was winning draws at an upper-50 to mid-60 percent clip.
“When I got to Columbus, I really started taking pride in that role,” he said. “That was really my role. I think that’s where I started to take off and really start focusing on that as part of my game.”
Malhotra, now 33 and a veteran of over 850 games in the NHL, says the learning – faceoffs or otherwise – never ends, as he gleans information from in-game moments and working with an array of players.
“It’s always a learning process,” he said. “The minute you stop learning in this league, you’re on your way out.
“You kind of watch and learn. You see how a certain linesman is dropping puck. You see how certain guys are taking them against lefties or righties,” he said. “There are constantly different things you can factor into the equation, but when it comes to down to it, how hungry are you to win that one-second battle?”
It also doesn’t hurt to have Brind’Amour, who was known for his faceoff prowess, among a coaching staff rich with former NHLers, who each played over 1,000 regular-season career games.
“It’s nice to work with [Rod] just knowing how aggressive and how fierce he was in the circle. He’s just a strong body,” Malhotra said. “That’s the thing for me – just those little tweaks, fixing things and bouncing ideas off him. That means a lot to get info and feedback from him.”
But for the most part, Brind’Amour stays out of the way.
“The first day I met him I said, ‘Look, I know you’re good.’ In the 20 years I played, I never once had advice from anybody,” Brind’Amour said. “So I said, ‘What do like? I’ve got video I can show you on other guys. We can do this, we can do that.’ He said, ‘Nope, I’ve got it covered.’ I said, ‘Fine.’ You don’t mess with guys’ routines that get it.”
Others, too, are learning from Malhotra.
“He’s actually the best teacher because he can help me with what I’ve been saying over and over,” Brind’Amour said. “Now you’ve got a guy saying this stuff who’s playing right now.”
“At morning skates, I’ll go over a lot of stuff with Nasher. I learn from the other guys in seeing what’s working for them, and they’ve asked me questions to help them and tweak their technique in the circle,” Malhotra said. “I think that little powwow with the centermen is always a learning experience when we bounce ideas off each other and really help each other out.”
Puck possession can easily start with winning faceoffs – that’s an easy sell for Malhotra.
“I realized early that I could either spend one second trying to win a draw and get puck possession or spend 15 seconds in a shift trying to chase it back,” he said. “I’d much rather start with the puck than have to waste half my shift chasing it down.”
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