«face-off (or faceoff) is the method used to begin
play in ice hockey and some other sports»          
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Before the game even starts, there's lots of background information you need to soak up. You need to know all about the technical aspects, like the rink, the goals, the players, the equipment, the amount of time in a game, the different leagues, how the season is structured, and the referees.

The rink

Hockey is played on a rink that is 200 feet long and 85 feet wide, with rounded corners. The ice surface has painted lines on it, which indicate face-off circles, the goal crease and the various zones. The most important lines are the red line (which runs across the center of the ice) and the blue lines (which are parallel to the red line and are painted 73 feet from each end of the rink). The red line indicates center ice, and regulates how far players can pass and shoot (see Section 2). The blue lines divide up the ice into three zones. Each team plays from one side of the ice, and the area behind a team's blue line is called its defending zone. The area behind the opposing team's blue line is called the attacking zone. Finally, the area between the two blue lines is called the neutral zone.

The goals

Thirteen feet from each end of the ice, in the center, is a stationary set of goal posts with a net attached behind them. The object of the game is to put the puck in the net more times than the other team does. The posts are 6 feet apart and the top post (or crossbar) is 4 feet from the ice. A red line called the goal line is painted between the two posts, and the puck must cross this line entirely for a goal to be counted. A blue area is painted in front of the goal. It goes out 1 foot from each side, then extends straight forward for 4 1/2 feet and ends in a semi-circle whose farthest point is 6 feet from the goal line. This is called the crease (see Section 2 for more).

The players

There are three basic kinds of players: forwards, defensemen and goaltenders (goalies). Unless a team is shorthanded due to a penalty or overtime, each team will have six players on the ice during play. Three forwards line up at the front of the team; they are (from left to right) the left wing, the center and the right wing. Two defensemen line up behind them, one on the left and one on the right. The goalie is the sixth player. The forwards are responsible for most of the offense, and they usually stay out front, while the defensemen are largely responsible for hanging back and making sure they are ready to protect the defensive zone. The goalie rarely strays far from his crease, but he does skate out and pass pucks to the other players.

One of the interesting things about hockey is that all of the players have to be aware of and involved in what is going on all over the rink. Every movement of the puck and the opposing team's players demands a reaction from each player on the team. Forwards must be responsible for defending their own zone, and defensemen must play a role in the offense.

Forwards usually stick to one position for most of their careers, but they move around a bit from time to time as the team needs them to--or if the coach thinks, for example, that a left wing might be better suited to playing at center. Defensemen are more flexible, in that they can usually play either side, and some will occasionally fill in at a forward position. Goalies are very specialized players. They have to stand in front of the net and stop pucks, some of which are traveling at 90 mph or more. They never play other positions, and other players never play in goal (with a few rare exceptions).

Regulation time and overtime

Each game consists of three periods of 20 minutes each. The players get about 15 minutes of rest between periods. In the regular season, if the game is tied at the end of regulation time (the end of the third period), the teams almost immediately go into overtime, which is an extra 5 minutes of playing time. During these 5-minute overtimes, there are only five players on the ice. You will often hear this format referred to as 4-on-4, because although there are five players on the ice for each team, only four of them are skating against each other. This is to allow more room to skate, and to allow teams to capitalize on their fastest and most skilled players in an attempt to resolve the contest. The overtime in hockey is "sudden death," because if either team scores at any time, that team automatically wins and the overtime period ends. If neither team scores by the end of overtime, the game is declared a tie.

During the playoffs, if the game is tied at the end of regulation time, it will go into overtime--but the players get a 15-minute rest, and the overtime period is also 20 minutes. These overtime periods are played with six players (or 5-on-5), and are identical to periods in regulation time, except that they are "sudden death." The game will continue until one team scores and wins, so overtime playoff games can go into double overtime, triple overtime and so on. There are no ties in the playoffs.

The league

The NHL is divided into the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. These conferences are each divided into three divisions. There is inter-conference play, but teams from the same division and conference play each other more often. The Eastern Conference is divided into the Atlantic, Northeast and Southeast Divisions, while the Western Conference is divided into the Central, Northwest and Pacific Divisions.

Regular Season and playoffs

The NHL season is divided into the regular season and the playoffs. The regular season consists of 82 games, and runs from October until April. During the regular season, a team collects points based on its performance as follows: 2 points for a win, 1 point for a tie, 1 point for a loss in overtime and 0 points for a loss. At the end of the regular season, the eight teams with the most points in each conference go on to the playoffs. However, the top team in each of the three divisions in a conference will go on to the playoffs, even if it had a lower point total than another team that didn't win its division.

The NHL playoffs are long and grueling. The top eight teams in each conference are ranked from first to eighth, with the division leaders taking the first through third spots in order of their point totals. The fourth to eighth spots go to the other teams in order of their point totals. The playoffs consist of four rounds. The first three rounds are the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals in each conference--after which the two winners of the conference finals play each other for the Stanley Cup, the ultimate prize in the NHL. Each round is a "best of seven" series, so a team could play as many as 28 extra games to win the Stanley Cup. It is always as much a contest of endurance and determination as it is of skill and teamwork.

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