Ryan O'Reilly takes a faceoff against Detroit's Frans Nielsen on Thursday. ©2018, Hickling Images, Olean Times Herald

Sabres’ Ryan O’Reilly roaring toward NHL faceoff record

BUFFALO – Ryan O’Reilly’s faceoff skills are so dynamic he takes and wins more than any NHL player. Yet the Sabres center thinks draws are, well, overrated.

Overrated?

Sabres coach Phil Housley constantly relies on O’Reilly’s faceoff prowess, utilizing him an average of 26 times a game. Through 75 appearances entering Thursday’s tilt 6-3 loss to the Detroit Red Wings inside KeyBank Center, O’Reilly had won 1,181 of the 1,949 draws he had taken, a healthy 60.6 percentage.

Those whopping numbers led the NHL by a significant margin. In fact, according to the Sabres, O’Reilly’s on pace to win 1,275 draws, more than anyone since the league began tracking the stat in 1997-98.

“It’s a big weapon that we’re able to use,” Housley said last week. “Whether it’s offensively or defensively, he’s taken a lot of the most important draws.”

Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby ranked a distant second behind O’Reilly in faceoffs taken (1,802) and won (943).

Only two players – Boston’s Patrice Bergeron and Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour – have ever won more than 1,000 draws while maintaining a percentage of at least 59 percent.

But when O’Reilly examines the stat sheet, he said “there’s games where I think we’ve dominated the circle but still don’t win.”

“There’s so much more on top of (faceoffs),” O’Reilly said. “There are important faceoffs in games – late ones and power-play ones – but overall I think they’re overrated.”

While O’Reilly gives the Sabres possession of the puck, they don’t do much with it. They’ve won only 24 games all season and have scored only 179 goals, the league’s lowest total.

Still, while O’Reilly believes faceoffs can be overvalued, he understands they have importance. Taking so many also means he’s constantly jumping on the ice and hurrying off, a challenge he enjoys.

“I want to be on the ice as much as I possibly can,” O’Reilly said. “It’s one of those things where it’s a good little task, get the draw and get off. I like it. When I win the draw, it’s something that builds confidence. I do my job, I get the puck out and I got to change. …

“Obviously, there are important draws, because if I lose the draw, I’m going to get hemmed in and then it affects the flow of our lines and it’s tough to crawl back. So it’s an important job I love doing.”

It’s a job that has evolved. The NHL has been cracking down on encroachment this season, making sure players line up correctly.

“They got the cheating kind of out of it, it makes it a little more fair, it’s a little more stick battle right away,” O’Reilly said. “And for myself, I kind of have a stiff stick, and a lot of times it’s stiffer than the other guy’s, that kind of helps me get it back, but I think we’ve got some good forwards that help out a lot.

“But for me, it’s just kind of don’t lose it clean and get it behind me, and then I got like Sam (Reinhart) touching it back all the time. So there’s a lot of things that go into it, but it’s being strong and having the right timing.”

Intimidation probably helps O’Reilly, too. He’s so good he can get in his opponent’s head.

“You can see it in opposing centers when they’re going to line up against him,” Sabres winger Kyle Okposo said last month. “They’re trying to think of different ways to beat him. The fascinating part is he pretty much takes draws the exact same way all the time. And nobody seems to be able to figure it out.”

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The odds of the worst team – right now, the Sabres own that dubious distinction – winning the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft Lottery on April 28 are 18.5 percent, according to numbers the league has released.

That’s up .5 percent from last season.

The 15 teams that don’t qualify for the playoffs (or the owner of that club’s pick) will participate in the lottery.

The NHL will conduct one drawing for each of the first three picks.

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Housley said goalie Linus Ullmark, who took some shots Thursday morning before leaving the ice, is still day-to-day.

Meanwhile, Housley said center Kyle Criscuolo, out since suffering an upper-body injury March 5, is “ready to go.”

The Sabres scratched winger Benoit Pouliot and defensemen Victor Antipin and Josh Gorges (all healthy).

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