McRae tapped for big faceoffs

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:38 AM ET

Every faceoff may be different, but the London Knights keep sending out the same guy for the big ones: Phil McRae.

In his third season, the lanky 18-year-old forward has become head coach Dale Hunter's most trusted man when puck possession is at stake.

"I'm getting better at it," McRae said. "I wasn't very good in my first couple of years because a lot of taking faceoffs has to do with strength and I got overpowered. But I'm stronger now. I'm winning more. It's an important part of the game."

No one believes that more than Hunter. The Knights continually work on their draws at the end of practice.

"When you keep stats of it and post it, then the kids are aware how they're doing and if they see they're getting beat more than they win, they want to work harder on it," he said. "We're improving at it. Especially with more faceoffs in the end zones and on the penalty kill, you want to win those.

"It's a skill and if you're good at it, it's a way to get more ice time. You'll notice I've put Philip out for a lot of our important ones and he's earned it. He's the best we have right now."

McRae has superior hand-eye co-ordination. Though he didn't see much of the lake this summer because of the NHL draft, U.S. world junior identification camp and an international tournament, he is an avid fisher, constantly casting and re-casting.

When he's on the bench, McRae studies what potential opponents will try against him. He has to be patient because sometimes coaches will throw a winger into the circle to go for broke, unafraid about the player being tossed from the draw by a linesman.

"I try not to be predictable and I know every faceoff is different," the six-foot-three, 191-pounder said. "If you're on the penalty kill and you win that draw and get the puck down the ice, that kills 20, 30 seconds off it because the other team has to come back in and get set up again."

A deft move can help out the defence. But McRae also scored his first goal this season -- a game-winner, to boot -- straight from a faceoff against Saginaw on Oct. 3.

He missed the early part of the OHL season and his first NHL training camp with the St. Louis Blues because of mono. But there's nothing that builds up confidence faster than getting a tap on the back from a coach when winning or losing hangs in the balance.

He has seven goals and 15 points in 11 games and is on his way to his best offensive season.

"You want to be out in those situations with the game on the line," McRae said.


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