The Pittsburgh Penguins took a 2-0 series lead over the San Jose Sharks in overtime on Wednesday night, which could mark the beginning of the end for the Sharks’ postseason run. Instead of looking inside themselves as to why they’re returning to San Jose for Game 3 down 2-0, the Sharks accused the Penguins’ captain, Sidney Crosby, of cheating in the faceoff circle.

“He cheats,” Sharks forward Logan Couture told the media after Game 2. “He gets away with it. He’s Sidney Crosby.”

Crosby is winning faceoffs at a rate of 52.7 percent in these playoffs, a slight uptick from his regular-season mark of 51.7 percent. Against the Sharks, Crosby is 26-for-40 (65.0 percent). If we selected any of Crosby’s 40 faceoffs at random, we would expect him to win 26 or more of them 6.3 percent of the time — not a bet we would mortgage our house on, but high enough that we shouldn’t be surprised if it does indeed happen in a small sample size of two games. Through that lens, the numbers are far from evidence Crosby is doing anything nefarious or even radically different from the regular season. It could just be a blip.

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Cheating or not, there were several other breakdowns that led the Sharks to allow Wednesday night’s game winner. While the play does begin when Crosby wins the draw and gets the puck to Kris Letang, San Jose has two defensive breakdowns:

  1. Patric Hornqvist screens Sharks’ goaltender Martin Jones, and …
  2. Conor Sheary is left all alone in the slot to score the game-winning goal in overtime.

With so many factors contributing to the outcome, it’s hard to think a few extra face-off wins would mean much over the course of an NHL hockey game, more or less a seven-game series. Except …

Research done by Michael Schuckers, Tom Pasquali and Jim Curro found “a team that moves from winning 50 percent of their faceoffs to winning 60 percent of them gains just over 12 goals per season which is equivalent to two additional wins.” That means Crosby’s impact — which coincides almost exactly with this example — would be worth two wins over an 82-game season. Over a seven-game series that would prorate to 0.17 wins. But if you view the contribution in terms of expected goals, it gets a little more interesting.

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If you prorate the expected goals produced by a 10-percent faceoff bump down from an 82-game regular season to a seven game series, you come away with an additional one goal. So, conceptually, a faceoff edge by Crosby — however he achieves it — should result in an additional goal for the Penguins during the Stanley Cup finals. Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it.

Another reason Crosby’s big night in the circle is notable. Last year, Garret Hohl found that a team’s faceoff percentage explains about 20 percent of the team’s Corsi percentage, which is the percentage of total shot attempts put in a team’s favor. Hohl cautions this impact could be a bit misleading after accounting for a team’s ability to win puck battles and the ability of coaches to select which player will take a faceoff, but when David Staples looked at the 2014-15 Edmonton Oilers, he found that 3.6 faceoffs per game contribute to a scoring chance. If we are generous and say that scoring chances convert at a 15 percent rate, a team or player would need to win 25 faceoffs to be responsible for a single goal via the draw. Sidney Crosby won his 26th Wednesday night. Hmm …

Two different faceoff studies conclude we should have expected Crosby’s dominance to lead to a Penguins goal. And while the Schuckers/Pasquali/Curro study says we should expect that goal over the course of seven games, it doesn’t specify when that goal will come, just that we should expect it. Not all goals are created evenly. Some of them just happen to be decisive, game-winning overtime tallies that give a team a 2-0 edge in a best-of-seven series.

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What if the extra goal we’d expect to see as a result of faceoff dominance was scored a little over two-minutes into OT Wednesday night? That could get you pretty rankled, eh?

Couture’s grumbling comes off as sour grapes and in a league where it’s expected that all centers are trying to get an edge in the faceoff dot, it’s silly to blame the loss on Crosby “cheating.” That said, it seems pretty clear his faceoff success — however he’s achieving it — should have a clear impact on the series, and it may have already made a serious difference.

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