RALEIGH — It's the simplest of hockey plays. Two players enter the face-off circle, the puck is dropped and one guy wins.
Some are better at it than others. When center Manny Malhotra takes a face-off, his team often gets the puck.
The Carolina Hurricanes were addressing a need a few weeks ago when they signed Malhotra to a one-year contract. There had been games where the face-off battle had been one-sided and the opposing team given too many extra possessions.
In his first five games, Malhotra has won 64 percent of his draws and the Canes have had the face-off edge in every game.
"It's having pride in doing your job," Malhotra said. "Some guys are asked to score, some guys are asked to quarterback the power play, some are asked to stop pucks. Taking face-offs is a part of my job."
In the Canes' 1-0 victory over the New York Islanders on Thursday, Malhotra won the last four draws of the game, all in the defensive zone. The last came with 33 seconds left in regulation, when Malhotra beat the Isles' Kyle Okposo.
"At the end of the game, Manny took control of the final face-off," Canes coach Kirk Muller said. "The center knows how he's going to win it, whether forehand or backhand, where he wants guys. With his experience, he placed them right where he wanted them, won the draw and we got the win."
Late in his playing career, Muller and Malhotra were teammates on the Dallas Stars. They were on the same line at times and gave the Stars two natural centers on the ice for face-offs.
"I'd tell him, 'Go ahead, you cheat or I'll cheat. If I get kicked out, you go in,'" Muller said, smiling. "He wasn't as good as he is now. He's really worked at it."
Malhotra won't give away what he calls the "tricks of the trade." But since the 2006-2007 season, he has won at least 58 percent of his draws and topped 60 percent three times.
"I think with face-offs, you get better over time," Canes assistant coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "You just get the feel, and face-offs really are a feel. It's totally timing and if you're a little off, you're useless, no good. His timing is really good.
"There are ton a things that go into face-offs, but the simpler you can make it the better. He's really good at keeping it simple. He's very compact, doesn't have a lot of moving parts, and he's strong."
Brind'Amour, who was among the NHL's best face-off men in his career, said a player must go into the circle with the mindset every draw is important.
"He takes it serious," Brind'Amour said. "He bears down on every one."
When the Canes faced the Minnesota Wild in a road game Oct. 24, they won 23 draws and lost 36 in a 3-1 loss. On Saturday at PNC Arena, with Malhotra in the lineup, the Canes won 36 and lost 24 against the Wild in a 3-2 shootout loss.
"It takes a load off the Staal brothers," Muller said. "They're capable but it gives me the opportunity to start Eric and Jordan (Staal) a lot more on offensive face-offs and play a line with Manny on the defensive face-offs. Now you're got your offensive guys starting a lot of shifts in the offensive zone and you've got your defensive guys starting in the defensive zone. We've never been able to really do that before and it helps a lot."
Malhotra uncharacteristically lost five of six draws in the first period against the Wild but finished the game 10-9. He twice won defensive-zone draws in the last five minutes of regulation and won two in the offensive zone in overtime.
I definitely take pride in taking the critical face-offs late in the game, Malhotra said.
Malhotra, who said he keeps a "book" on other NHL centers, also helps with the Canes' other centers, including Riley Nash. At times in practice, Nash has Brind'Amour and Malhotra offering advice.
"It's awesome," Nash said. "That's one of the parts of my game I need to work on and going against them is going against the best.
"For me, it's just getting in the circle and owning the circle. That's one thing Manny does a great job with, being so strong. He never lets the other guy get the upper hand in the circle."
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