Hockey Face-off Rules and Strategies
Game restarts are somewhat unique to ice hockey—no throw-ins or passes from out of bounds happen; instead, to begin play hockey players go stick-to-stick to compete for the puck dropped by the referee or linesman at the face-off spot. Face-offs begin the game and each period of play, restart the game following a goal, and resume play after the action is stopped for blown whistle or when the puck goes out of play.
Where Hockey Face-offs Happen
Hockey face-offs aren't random. When plays stops and a face-off is needed, the referee or linesmen organize the restart at one of the designated face-off areas on the ice, five of which are seen as circles with dots in the centers and the largest of which is at center ice; four dots with no circles around them are found in the neutral zones just past center ice.
A hockey rink has a total of nine face-off spots. These areas are simply called "dots" or "face-off spots." Four face-offs spots, those in the end zones, have hashmarks on the circles to indicate where players should stand. The game starts at center ice, as do face-offs after a goal and at other times in a game as determined by the referee.
All hockey face-offs take place at one of those nine face-off spots on the ice, as directed by NHL Rule 76.2. This rule also stipulates that when two rules violations are called against one team, the face-off occurs at the dot giving the least territorial advantage to the offending team. If the play is stopped for any reason "not attributable to a specific team," the rules say, the face-off should be at "the nearest face-off spot outside the blue line." When the referee can't determine which spot is nearest, the advantage goes to the spot in the neutral zone that favors the home team.
Face-offs are intended to be fair contests of possession, so if a player tries to gain an unfair advantage the referee may remove him from the face-off lineup, another player on the same team takes over, and the face-off happens.
If a team makes two face-off violations, they're assessed a bench minor penalty for delay of game. In hockey, common face-off violations might include not getting into position when instructed to do so by the official, moving the stick before the puck is dropped, not placing the stick properly when instructed to do so, not being square to the face-off dot, or a teammate may encroach into the face-off circle.
A player taking part in the face-off (often the centerman on the team, but not always) has five seconds to get in position, after which the referee or linesman will drop the puck; past that five-second count, the referee or linesman may remove the player from the face-off.
No player can come within 15 feet of the face-off circle. Goalies may not participate in a face-off—though with their large puck-stopping sticks and all their pads, the question comes to mind—why would a coach want them to?
In the NHL, a visiting-team player places his stick on the ice first for the face-off at center ice. For all other face-offs, a defending team player must place his stick down first. Once they establish position at a face-off, players must hold that position until the puck is dropped.
The NHL rules also state: "The whistle will not be blown by the official to start play. Playing time will commence from the instant the puck is faced off and will stop when the whistle is blown or a goal is scored."
In face-offs, communication is key. The team's centerman should let other players know at the time of face-off or in practice what the plan will be—a forehand push, sending the puck to the side with a backhand, a spin move, or tying up the puck so another player can skate in and win it. Again: communication is key.
Hockey coaches will tell their players—get low, get balanced, and have a plan for winning the face-off. A player in a face-off will typically orient himself to favor the forehand or backhand, keeping a low center of gravity and shifting his weight to prepare to win the puck when it's dropped.
Most coaches emphasize establishing solid defense when a face-off occurs in their defensive zone. That team is already at a territorial disadvantage, so the strategy is to protect their goal above all else if they lose the face-off. Of course, if the defensive team wins the face-off, they want to break out and attack the opposing goal quickly.
When the face-off is in a team's attack zone, the offensive team usually plans to orchestrate options for scoring—after they win the faceoff. Coaches lose sleep over devising scoring options following an offensive-zone face-off, because they have a tactical advantage. The set-play options all lead to getting that all-important shot on goal.