Stu Cowan: Lacrosse helped Canadiens' Sean Monahan develop faceoff skills

Veteran forward credits sport he played and loved as a kid with improving his eye-hand co-ordination and ability to roll off checks.

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As a young boy growing up in Brampton, Ont., Sean Monahan’s father, John, would preach the importance of winning faceoffs, whether he was playing hockey or lacrosse.

“I wouldn’t say my dad (a sheet-metal construction worker) was ever hard on me, but even when I was 4 years old he was always stressing that when you win the faceoff you have the puck or you have the ball in lacrosse,” Monahan said during a one-on-one chat after practice last Friday in Brossard. “It’s something I take a lot of pride in. When you have an off-night like I did against New Jersey it can get in your head a little bit.”

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Monahan won only three of the 15 faceoffs he took (20 per cent) in last Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to the Devils at the Bell Centre. It was a rare off-night for the 29-year-old centre, who is winning a team-leading 56.9 per cent of his faceoffs this season.

Monahan rebounded by winning 56 per cent of the 25 faceoffs he took in last Thursday’s 4-3 overtime win over the Columbus Blue Jackets and 52.2 per cent of the 23 faceoffs he took in Saturday’s 4-3 shootout win over the Winnipeg Jets.

Heading into Monday night’s game against the Golden Knights in Las Vegas, Monahan had taken 144 of the Canadiens’ 434 faceoffs this season (33 per cent).

“I don’t think he really gets credit for the little things he does,” defenceman Kaiden Guhle said about Monahan after Saturday’s game. “He makes so many good plays. He’s basically playing every D-zone faceoff. He’s our best faceoff guy. All the little things he does and he’s such a good guy for everyone on the team. For the young guys, especially, he’s such a good leader. Just someone that you can definitely lean on. You can tell he’s been in the league for 10-plus years. It’s awesome to have him healthy and playing for us again.”

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Heading into Monday’s game, Monahan ranked second on the Canadiens in scoring with 4-3-7 totals in eight games, two points behind Cole Caufield (4-5-9).

Monahan excelled at hockey and lacrosse as a kid, but lacrosse was his favourite sport. One of his lacrosse teammates with the Brampton Exelsiors was Tyler Ennis, who was selected by the Phoenix Suns in the first round (18th overall) of the 2014 NBA Draft. Monahan was selected by the Calgary Flames in the first round (sixth overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft. Ennis was a physical defenceman in lacrosse, while Monahan was a goal-scorer.

Ennis’s father, Tony, coached the lacrosse team, while Monahan’s father coached him in hockey as a youngster. The two boys played lacrosse in the summer and then switched back to their second sport in the winter.

Monahan still misses playing lacrosse and said the game helped him as a hockey player when it comes to things like eye-hand co-ordination, positioning in front of the net and learning to roll off checks.

“I was actually not even going to play hockey,” he said. “I was just going to play lacrosse.”

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Monahan had a tough decision to make at age 15 when the Ottawa 67’s selected him in the first round (16th overall) of the 2010 OHL Priority Selection draft after he posted 46-44-90 totals in 47 games with the Mississauga Rebels U16 team.

“I got drafted to the OHL and I didn’t know too much about it,” he said. “I was playing minor hockey and I got drafted by Ottawa as a first-round pick. I went to camp, made the team and I was like, OK. From there, I kind of had to stop playing lacrosse. I played one more year after my first year in junior and then that was it.”

Up until that point, Monahan believed he could play pro lacrosse and pro hockey.

“As a kid I thought I could play in the NLL and play in the NHL,” he said. “That was my mindset. I realized quickly that it’s not a possibility.”

But Monahan has never forgot the lessons he learned playing lacrosse, including the importance of winning faceoffs. He has helped mentor the Canadiens’ young centremen and the team ranked 11th in the NHL in faceoffs (51.4 per cent) heading into Monday’s game after ranking 24th last season (48.5 per cent) when Monahan was limited to 25 games because of injuries. Monahan won 55.1 per cent of his faceoffs last season.

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While timing is important in winning faceoffs, Monahan said “second, third and fourth effort” is also key.

“Sometimes you don’t necessarily win the puck and the puck’s right there and you still have an opportunity to get it,” he said. “You don’t quit in the circle and do whatever you can to win the faceoff.”

While analytics people don’t place a lot of importance on faceoffs, Monahan disagrees.

“You lose a faceoff, you don’t have the puck,” he said. “You win the puck, it’s your chance to attack and start to make something happen. I think it’s a really big part of the game.”

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