Whenever you don’t have the puck, the first thing to do is pressure the puck carrier as hard as you can
By Rick Traugott
Generally, I would say that most hockey players are far too “puck focused” and not player attentive when the opposition has possession of the puck. This is particularly true in the defensive zone, where you regularly see players—even at the NHL level—lose their check because they get mesmerized by the puck. You can’t properly cover a player in the defensive zone if you are solely looking at the puck.
Monkey in the Middle
When we begin to talk about defensive play, I ask my players if they have ever played Monkey in the Middle. (Of course, at this point I typically have to explain what the game is because most of them have never played it before.) Then I ask them this: If you want to get the ball back, where is the best place to position yourself? Again, blank stares. And then I say, “you have three choices: stand next to the person with the ball, stand next to the person receiving the ball, or stand in the middle between the passer and the receiver.”
Needless to say, the correct answer is to cover the receiver. And if there were two “monkeys” in the middle, one would make it difficult for the passer and the other would cover the receiver.
Somehow, though, my experience has been that hockey players are naturally drawn to try to read where the puck is going to be passed and then intercept it. This is the same as standing right in the middle of the Monkey in the Middle game. I think this comes from when they were younger and the passers weren’t very good, both at passing and at not telegraphing where they are going to pass the puck. But as players get older, become more skilled and more experienced, all of a sudden they can’t just read and react and intercept the puck anymore. Inevitably, as I regularly find, old habits are tough to break.
That’s why I try to instill in my players that, whenever they don’t have the puck, the very first thing to do is to pressure the puck carrier as hard as they can. To continue with the Monkey in the Middle concept, the players want to get in the puck-passer’s face and create difficulty for them to make a good pass. Then, the other players should be thinking about getting the puck back after the pressure has created a tough passing situation. Again, with Monkey in the Middle, go to the receivers and not into “no man’s land” and hope to intercept a pass. You can still intercept a pass, but the place it’s most likely going to go is to one of the passer’s teammates. So does it not make sense to go there to get the puck back?
I know that catchphrases can often get into players’ heads, and two things I regularly stress with regard to defensive play are to (a) pressure the puck carrier and (b) work on finding a man. I want to see them fully pressure the puck carrier whenever the opposition has the puck. And I want everyone to “Find a Man!” Take away passes so that we can get the puck back in our possession.
There are four 5v5 situations where players need to be really good at this. Starting from the offensive zone: (1) Forechecking, (2) Neutral-zone forechecking, (3) Backchecking (tracking), and (4) Defensive-zone coverage.
While on the forecheck, I would hazard a guess that most systems have the first man skating into the zone and pressuring the defense. The second player is the key to getting the puck back, and floating into the zone with the intent to intercept an errant pass isn’t necessarily the best option for retrieving the puck. I tell my Number 2 forechecker that they need to “guess” where the puck is going to be and to pressure that spot.
Is the pass coming up the boards on the strong side? Go to that winger. Is the puck is going D to D behind the net? Go to the D receiving the puck. Is the first forechecker going to create a loose puck in the corner? Then be “second man quick” to get the loose puck.
On the neutral-zone forecheck there are two obvious passes a defenseman can make: D to D, and up to a posted winger on the strong side. If the first forechecker goes to pressure the puck carrier, then the next two forecheckers shouldn’t just be waiting to see where the puck goes; they should automatically be taking away those two easy passes.
When backchecking (tracking), all players should be finding a man rather than “being in the neighborhood.” If the forwards can take care of the last rushing forward and the two defensemen, then it becomes a fairly simple 2v2 rush instead of a confusing 10 players skating towards your end.
Finally, in the defensive zone it doesn’t really matter what zone-coverage system your team is playing (I’m a big fan of strict man-on-man). Players need to be able to identify the threats to scoring, and not just focus on the puck to play good defense. The ability to stay between a check and the net is crucial to being able to play good team defense in the zone.
The Bottom Line: Players need to get out of the “in the neighborhood” mentality and start employing the Find a Man way of thinking. Hockey is a game that’s too fast to be able to react to quick passes, and even quicker and harder shots off today’s sticks. It’s not merely a matter of a player going to pressure the puck carrier. To be truly effective, puck pressure needs to be applied to all opposition players.
Rick Traugott is a frequent contributor to CrossIceHockey.com. He has served with Hockey Canada as a camp coach, with both the National Women’s U18 and U22/Development teams. His teams have won numerous championships and medals in international competitions. For more information visit his website, www.ricktraugott.com. Reproduced with permission of Rick Traugott.