What’s your plan for the last two minutes of the game?
By Rick Traugott
You’re at the two minute point in the game. Your team is down by one goal. All of a sudden, you have to start your action plan for handling the bench to maximize your team’s chances of scoring a goal and tying the game. As a captain or coach, you can’t get caught up in watching the game and lose focus on the task at hand. This may be the most critical time for bench leadership in the sport of hockey, and you must have a plan for those last two minutes.
There are two principals that I start with. For one, I want to pull my goalie for an extra attacker as soon after the 1:30 mark as possible. I know some coaches like to pull the goalie earlier, but your team still has a chance to score before you do so. An empty-net goal pretty much seals the loss, and giving your opponents more than 1:30 of shooting at an empty net is just too much to bear.
The second principal is that I want to get my top scorers on the ice for as long as possible in that last 1:30, but not for any longer than a 50-second shift. Tired goal scorers simply don’t score, and your second unit of offensive players is better fresh than seeing your top players out of gas.
Down by a Goal
Let’s look at the last two minutes of a one-goal-deficit game. At a whistle around the 2:30 mark, I will get my goalie’s attention and remind him or her that they will be getting pulled for an extra attacker. I will tell them exactly where I’ll be standing on the bench when I call for them, so they know where to look for me. I also remind my players that no one will take extra-long shifts. Regular shifts and good changes are crucial to the team’s success at the two minute mark.
The two minute mark is without question the start of using only the two top units. So once we get to that point in the game, I make sure that I have one of my first or second offensive units on the ice. Ideally it’s my top unit, and what I am hoping for is a whistle around the one minute mark in order to call a timeout and get that unit rested to play the majority of the last minute with them on the ice.
At this point I stop changing position for position on forward and put players on the ice in order of offensive talent. I line up the players at the door and tell them, “you are changing in this order and that includes the goaltender.” As players come off the ice I insert them into the line on the bench, where I balance their offensive ability with how much rest I think they will need. Typically they don’t need much rest at this point, and often even a 20-second pause on the bench is enough for them to recharge and get back on the ice. If it’s a top player, they will be closer to the front of the line than a less-offensively minded player.
The Sixth Skater
The timing of calling off the goalie can be a little tricky. I don’t worry so much about where the puck is on the ice; what I look for is to have clear possession with the puck definitely going to end up in the offensive zone. For example, I might call a goalie to the bench when a forward is skating with the puck over our blue line, but has a clear path to the red line so it will certainly get carried or dumped into the offensive zone. (I also physically hold the player going out the door by the back of the jersey until the goalie is 10 feet from the bench. Referees are always looking to whistle the play down for a quick change.)
I have one specific instruction for the sixth player that goes on for the goalie: Go to the front of the net and wreak havoc. I don’t want the team to not have someone screening the goalie and tracking the puck for rebounds. It’s important that one player is specifically responsible for this important task at this stage of the game. I choose someone who is big and strong, with a good net-front presence.
Ideally there will be a whistle between the 1:00 and 0:45 mark on the clock. This is a perfect time for a timeout if you need to rest your top offensive players. If my best players are ready to go, then I certainly don’t want to call a timeout to give my opponent a chance to rest their best defensive players. (This is particularly important if my team is up a goal. I don’t want to call a timeout to rest their best offensive players.) At this point one of two things is going to happen: the other team is going to call a timeout and we won’t have to (which is terrific), or we will call our timeout.
As for my process of calling a timeout, the first thing I do is get the players I want to be playing the last minute to sit on the bench and I send out another unit. As the line starts moving towards the faceoff I call the center back to the bench to give instructions. I tell them to skate normally to the faceoff circle, stand directly on the faceoff dot, look the referee in the eye and then call a timeout. Once that happens, my top unit will have gained an extra 20 to 30 seconds of rest sitting on the bench. I have them right in front of me and now I can give them any further instructions they need prior to heading into the faceoff. Usually it is a reminder of a set faceoff play that we run with six attackers.
Once that unit of six skaters goes out for the faceoff, I again line up players in order of them going on. I also remind them they must not get caught up in watching the game and to be on high alert for a change (and it could be a number of players—even all four forwards—scrambling off at the same time).
As a captain or coach, mentally rehearsing and noting which players you want on the ice in these situations is critical. Players also need to be comfortable with the routine, so it’s not a bad idea to practice it early in the season even when you are down by three or four goals. Giving your team the best opportunity to be successful and score a late goal is paramount to being a good bench coach.
Rick Traugott is a lifelong coach who has been working with young athletes in many sports for the past 35 years. His resume includes coaching the varsity boys and girls programs at Trinity College School, Ryerson University men’s team, Wexford Raiders Tier 2 Junior A, Wexford Raiders Minor Bantam and Midget AAA, as well as the Brampton Thunder of the CWHL. Traugott has also 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 TheHockeyCoach. Reproduced with permission of Rick Traugott.