Defense wins games. This is as true in hockey as in any other team sport. The group and individual defensive play of a team may not be as noticeable or spectacular as goal scoring. However, a team that prevents scoring chances can still win the game – even if they only score a few goals. The goal of the defense is twofold:
First, stop the your opponents from taking shots that may score, and then second, obtain control of the puck and move to offense.
Defense is a team responsibility and every player has a role. However, the two defensive players (known as the “D”s) have a special responsibility. They need to be leaders in preventing the good shot and taking the puck away from the attackers. Once the defensive player gains control of the puck, the D’s start the attack with a clean, hard pass to a forward for the rush up the ice and into the other team’s zone.
In order to play successful defense, team members need a complete set of individual skills, a system to play defense as the puck comes out of the offensive zone, and disciplined play in the defensive zone.
Defensive skills: Skating
In a checking league, the defensive player can rely on size and strength to gain control of the puck. However, in adult hockey, skating and stick handling become much more important. One could argue that the best skaters on an adult team should play defense because they need to match the skating skills of the attackers while skating backwards.
The defensive skater needs to be light on his or her feet and able to change direction and speed quickly. A good rule for D’s is to keep your feet moving at all times, even if you need to skate in small circles. A defensive player will have to accelerate rapidly to match the speed of an attacker who may have had half of the rink to skate hard and pick up speed.
The first specific skating skill the defensive player must master is coming off the offensive blue line quickly as the opponents gain control of the puck. The D must make a split second decision to either stay on the point and or begin backing into the neutral zone. It is always better to skate backwards if the other team is coming out of the zone slowly as you can see the play develop and may be able to intercept a pass in the neutral zone. However, if the attacker is coming out fast from the zone, you may have to sprint forward to the center line and then turn to skate backwards.
There is some controversy on the best skating style for this situation. Many good skaters can use backward crossovers to pick up speed quickly and therefore never need to skate forward for any distance. However, backward crossovers may cause a skater to weave and may allow the attacker extra room to get by the defender. Powering out by using “C” cuts is the most effective way to accelerate backwards for defensive players.
The next key defensive skating skill is the ability to maintain the correct distance from the attacker as they move through neutral ice and into your defensive zone. If you are the defender, you must be far enough from the skater to be able to position yourself between the attacker and the goal. You must also keep enough distance so the attacker cannot quickly skate around you. On the other hand you cannot be so far away from the attacker that you cannot stick check or allow the attacker the opportunity to change direction quickly and cut into the slot for a shot. A good rule of thumb is to maintain a 6 to 9 foot distance (easier said than done!) If your team has regular practices, you will probably drill on 2 on 1 and 3 on 2 rushes (see below.) These drills provide an excellent way to practice the maintenance of the proper speed and distance from the attacker.
As you enter your own defensive zone skating backwards you need to be able to quickly change to forward skating to force an attacker to the boards. If you change too early, the attacker can cut back towards the center. If you change too late the attacker may have enough speed to get by you and skate behind you and onto the net. After you change to forward skating it is wise to skate towards the net, not toward the attacker as this will cut off the attacker’s route. Figure 9-1 illustrates this skating skill. If you have strong backward skating skill you may not need to change to forward skating until the attacker is forced into the corner.
Finally, the defensive player also needs the ability to skate in tight circles with the puck. This skill is used frequently when the defensive player gains control of the puck and needs to skate behind the net and up the rink before making a pass.
Back checking is a team skill that can markedly influence the outcome of the game. Back checking is the responsibility of all players on a team. Ds’ always back check as this is their primary responsibility. However, back checking frequently breaks down with forwards. It takes stamina and concentration for a forward to backcheck after they have been playing intensely in the offensive zone and have lost the puck to the other team.
The backchecker is a defending player who skates “back” into the neutral or defensive zone and covers an attacking player – usually one who does not have the puck. The backchecker should try to position themselves between the attacker and the puck in order to intercept a pass. If you are backchecking and cannot get into this position you should try to distract the attacker by skating closely and stick checking. You must be careful not to get too forceful in “distracting” the attacker as you may be called for interference.
Because body checking is prohibited, the effective adult hockey defender is skilled at all the different types of stick checks.
The poke check is a basic tool for defenders. The defender skates backwards as the offensive player attempts to skate around, or through the defender. The defender’s first step in the poke check is to bring the stick in close to their body in order to entice the attacker in closer. The defender then quickly pokes their stick at the puck or the attacker’s stick. It is useful to crouch as low as possible as this allows for the longest extension of the stick. The stick can be held in either hand but is normally held in the opposite hand of your shot ( a right shot would use their left hand). It is very important for the D to be able to quickly change directions and pick up the puck after knocking it off the attacker’s stick.
The sweep check is another useful type of stick check when an attacker is passing you on the outside or when they are in the corner and the attacker is going to pass to a team mate. The first step in the sweep check is to put your stick flat on the ice with the blade end hooked toward the puck. You then sweep the stick in front of the attacker thereby picking up the puck. In order to get your stick flat on the ice you may need to go down to one knee. It is important to be limber enough to quickly get back on your feet after a sweep check in order to pick up the loose puck.
A variant on the sweep check is to use the stick and your body to block a pass. This should only be used in situations where an attacker has a strong scoring chance as you are committing yourself completely and it will take some time to get back on your feet. It is also necessary to make sure you get some part of the puck with this check or you may incur an interference penalty.
The stick lift is used when you are close to an attacker – usually on the side or behind them. By putting your stick under their stick and quickly lifting their stick you can dislodge or even steal the puck. You can get the best leverage by lifting the stick high on the attacker’s stick shaft. The stick lift is an important tool in front of the net if you are guarding an attacker who has planted themselves there. As a pass comes to them, you can lift their stick and the puck will go by and into the boards.
The inverse of the stick lift is the stick press. Here you put your stick on top of the attacker’s and press it down – making stick handling difficult to impossible. This can be useful if you are catching an attacker from behind because it is much less likely that you will slide your stick up the attackers body and get called for hooking. Having a strong upper body is very useful for this stick check (lift those weights!)
Special passing skills need to be developed to play good defense. A relatively long, strong and accurate pass is a requirement for Ds. This pass is used to hit wings and centers on breakouts. It is usually a sweep pass and requires a slight crouch in order to bring your full body strength into the pass.
An important part of this skill is the ability to lead breaking players. Just as a quarterback on a football team can “see” the open receiver, the D must anticipate where the wing or center’s stick will be after the pass is made. To make an effective break out pass you must aim for the stick blade of your team mate. It is good to remember which way each team mate shoots so that you can hit their stick on their forehand side.
I think one of the sweetest plays a D can make is the long breakout pass that hits a team mate’s stick in neutral zone and they take it in to score. I have done this a number of times and I can remember each play as though it happened yesterday. – Dan
The other important passing skill for Ds is the ability to skate backwards while catching and making passes. This happens frequently in the neutral zone during breakouts or when regrouping for an attack A quick pass to the other D or an attacking wing can open up the offensive rush.
Play on the Boards
Play on the boards is the trench warfare of hockey. The puck is shot or passed into the corner and the first player to it may keep or lose it based on their ability to play on the boards. To be successful on the boards requires concentration, quick stick handling skills and upper body strength.
Although this skill is used in both ends of the rink, it is called “forechecking” when an attacking team is attempting to get the puck away from the defense in the attacker’s offensive zone. There are a number of forechecking systems in use today and they are described below in the section on defensive play in the offensive zone.
If you are the first player to get to the puck on the boards, you must plan your next action carefully. You may choose to use your speed to pick the puck off the boards and continue to skate along the boards. This requires you to skate at the puck at an angle parallel to the boards – never straight ahead or perpendicular to the boards. The best skating direction is toward any open ice in the center of the zone as this tends to open up passing lanes quickly. If you have an opposing player close behind you, you can either pick up speed or stop quickly and reverse direction. The net itself can be used as a barrier or “pick” to shake an opposing player that is close.
If you cannot skate the puck away from the boards because an opposing player has you tied up, it is important to try to keep your body between this player and the puck. This may require you to stick handle with one hand while using the other hand to push the attacker back. A team mate needs to get close in this situation in order to allow you to make a short pass even if it is one handed.
If you do not have the puck and are trying to take it away from an opponent in the corner the strategy discussed above is reversed. You need to skate to the boards, at an angle and attempt to get between the puck and the player. This means skating toward the middle of the opponent’s stick. As you skate toward the boards be alert to a pass back toward the center. Quickness is very important here as you cannot let the attacker set up and get control of the puck. You need to keep your stick on the ice and your feet loose in order to block or intercept any pass.
Body Checking – Body Blocking
Yes – this information is based on adult hockey that does not involve checking but we thought a word on body checking would be helpful. If you watch college or professional hockey you will see that most body checking is in the neutral zone or along the boards. Because today’s hockey players are exceptional skaters, most Ds will not attempt to use a body check as a defense against the rush in their defensive zone. No check hockey players can learn a lot by watching these excellent defensive players as they skate and position themselves.
Because body checking is a very useful defensive tool, especially along the boards, you can expect more scoring in no check hockey. However, a good no check D will position themselves in the path of a wing making passing or skating difficult. This body blocking can be almost as effective as body checking.
No check does not mean no contact. Only one person can occupy one space at a time, so defensive players should not be shy about protecting the slot from wings or centers. The rule is that every player is entitled to the space that is within a two foot circle (about your arm length.) However these circles will intersect at various points on the ice – especially in front of the net.
A little pushing and shoving is expected but be careful or you will be called for interference. All defensive players should be sure to position themselves between the puck and the goal. If a little body contact occurs in this process – well – hey its hockey!
How gutsy are you? Blocking a shot requires courage and concentration and is important element of defense. You should only attempt to block a shot if you are confident you have a good chance to be successful. If you miss completely or tip the shot you will make it much more difficult for your goalie. Never try to hit a shot in the air with either your stick or glove.
To block a shot effectively you need to be within six feet of the shooter. One strategy is to poke check just as the attacker is attempting to shoot. You may move the puck enough to make it go off target or into the seats. Another strategy is to present a barrier for the shooter. This involves crouching slightly and facing the shooting squarely. You can expect to get a puck in the pads with this maneuver. Effective shot blocking can stymie a powerful offensive opponent.
We do not recommend falling down in front of shots for adult players. You risk serious injuries and bruises with this techniques. Since you are paying to play and are trying to have fun this is one pro move to avoid. (Plus – there probably won’t be any pro scouts in the crowd to watch this courageous act!) However if you really want to use this technique, the most effective method is to slide on your side with both legs held together and aimed at the shooter’s stick.
Defensive play in the offensive zone
A team moves to defense once the other team gains control of the puck. If this happens in your team’s offensive zone and the puck is near the boards your team should “forecheck” quickly in order to regain possession. Forechecking is normally done by the wings and the center. There are number of forechecking systems but most teams use a one or two player forecheck.
The single forecheck system is a cautious, defense oriented system. The player (wing or center) on your team who is closest to the puck attempts to tie up the other team’s puck carrier on the boards in order to steal the puck or disrupt the pass. The other two offensive players cover the wings in order to intercept a breakout pass. The D’s move to neutral ice in order to eliminate any possibility of a breakaway.
A more aggressive systems is the two player forecheck. The player on your team who is closest to the puck carrier moves in and ties them up along the boards. A second player on your team skates in behind the first player and picks up the loose puck and your team can then return to the attack. The two player forecheck is risky because the player with the puck can make a quick breakout pass and then your team is likely to face an odd attacker rush.
You should never chase a player behind the net to start a forecheck as they can easily elude you by using the net itself. You must be careful how you engage the other team on the boards as you do not want to be called for a checking or interference penalty. As usual, superior stick handling and skating are the key skills for a successful forecheck.
Another key element of defense in the offensive zone is “holding the point.” As the other team begins to breakout the defenders at the points must decide whether to “bail” (skate quickly and on an angle into the neutral zone) or stay inside the blue line at the point to keep the puck in the zone. The defender should make this decision based on how well they think the other team is controlling the puck. If they have skating speed and are making clean passes – bail. If they are skating it out and reach the face off dot – bail. However, if they are passing up the boards and the wings do not have control of the puck, hold the point and forecheck to gain control. You can go after a loose puck if it is high in the zone but only if you are sure can get to it quickly. If one D attempts to hold the point, their partner must bail to the center of neutral ice to protect against the breakout.
Defending against the rush
Once the other team has gained possession of the puck in their own zone and has moved to the attack, you must be prepared to defend against the rush. The other team will attempt to move the puck through the neutral zone and into your defensive zone quickly – hence the name “rush.”
Some teams will have a number of “offensive minded” defenders. These are D players who can take the puck deep into the offensive zone to become part of the offensive attack. If this type of player is in deep when the other team regains the puck, it is important for the other D and a wing to play defense together and defend against the rush.
As a defender you always need to be alert for wings from the other team sneaking behind you at the blue line. If your league does not have the two line offside rule, they can get quite far down the rink in order to catch a breakout pass behind you for an unimpeded rush on your goalie.
As you move back into the neutral zone you should match your speed to that of the attackers. If you can skate backwards as you move through the zone this will allow you to see the rush develop and give you an opportunity to intercept a pass.
Keeping the correct distance between the attackers and the defense will slow the rush. It is critical to engage the attackers as close to the blue line as possible in order prevent them from getting into the high slot for a shot. The blue line can become the D’s best friend if you can slow an attacker down enough to force their teammate to enter the zone offside. This technique also allows the backchecker a chance to catch the attackers from behind.
There a number of strategies that the defense needs to employ based on the number of attackers.
1 on 1
A one on one break occurs when one offensive skater moves into the offensive zone and only one defender is available for defense. The defender should attempt to force the attacker to the outside and toward the boards. The D should make sure to focus on the player and not be faked or deked out of position. This can be accomplished by watching the attacker’s waist, not the puck. If you can maintain the correct distance from an attacker you can steal the puck with a poke or sweep check. You may need to turn from backwards skating to forwards in order to prevent a speedy player from go around you on the outside. Figure 9-1 illustrates this move.
2 on 1
In this situation, the D must count on time as their ally. The D must slow down the rush in some way in order to allow the backcheckers to catch up. The basic strategy is for the D to stay between the attackers – slightly close to the puck carrier. The goalie “takes the shooter.” This means that the D must protect against the pass from the puck carrier to the other attacker and the goalie needs to defend against the shot. If the shot is taken from a distance and the goalie is not screened, the goalie has a high probability of a save.
The goalie is responsible for making the save of the initial shot. The defender must cover rebounds and tie up any attacker that remains in the low slot.
If the attackers get within 15 feet of the goal, the D should engage the puck carrier directly. At this short distance it will be much harder for the puck carrier to pass successfully to their team mate.
2 on 2
The two on two rush allows each D to pick an attacker and stick closely to them. If the attackers crises cross as they move into the zone, the D’s should stay on their sides and pick up the other attacker. Again proper distance between the attackers and the Ds and poke or sweep checks will prevent scoring opportunities. It is also helpful for the Ds to be staggered with the D nearest the puck carrier remaining higher than their partner.
3 on 2
Both the 2 on 1 and the 3 on 2 are know as “odd attacker” or “advantage” rushes, as the offense has one more player than the defense. The basic principle of defense of the 2 on 1 apply here as well. Each D must cover an attacker and the goalie takes the shooter. 3 on 2s tend to be more complex as the offense will often weave and crisscross at the blue line. The Ds must stay on their own side and cover the players without the puck until they can intercept a pass or the backcheckers get into the play.
3 on 1
This is a D nightmare. With three skaters bearing down on you, the best you can do is to play between the puck carrier and the other wings. If you can slow the play down enough for the backcheckers to catch up you can stop the rush. If an attacker wants to shoot from high in the zone encourage it. Your job is to stop the passes. If you make any move that stops this play you are a defensive hero!
Successful Defensive Zone Play
Once the puck enters the defensive zone, your team needs to move into a defensive mode. Keys to successful defensive play in this zone include:
Cover your zone and intercept passes
Protect the net and the slot
Take advantage of two on one situations on the boards
Get control of the puck
Skate with the puck to open up passing lanes
Make an accurate break out pass
Once the other team has control of the puck in your defensive zone, your team needs a system to stop any shooting opportunities and regain control of the puck. The simplest system is a zone defense in which each player covers a portion of the ice. Figure 9-7 illustrates these zones. Because the zones overlap it is important to have at least one player cover the slot – usually a D or the center. As attacking players move across zones it is important for one defender to “hand off” the player to a team mate. The zone defense allows the defense to collapse in on an attacker in order to get a two on one advantage on the boards.
In line teams with four skaters can also use a zone defense. The two forwards need to expand their zone to cover the ice hockey “center” position.
Another common defensive strategy is to play one player on another. The center covers the center on the other team, the D covers the wings, and the wings cover the D. This defense is particularly useful if you are playing a team with a few outstanding players. If you can get your line changes synchronized correctly, you can match your best players against the other team’s stars and minimize their scoring chances.
In either defensive configuration, the defensive team must always be wary of attackers in the slot of near the net. These players should be covered closely and pushed out if possible. Defenders should always try to think like the attacking team in order to anticipate passes and thereby intercept them.
The front of the net should be owned by the D. A good defender will never let an offensive player park there for a screen, deflection or rebound. The D must move the attacker out of this area by stick checking, pushing or just generally irritating the attacker. However, do not “tie up” with the attacker as it is difficult to gain control of the puck if it comes into your area. Once again remember that there is fine line between being aggressive here and incurring an interference penalty.
Dump and Chase
A common offensive strategy is the dump and chase. As the attacking team approaches the blue line they shoot the puck into the corner and send an offensive player into the corner to retrieve the puck and pass back into the slot. Dump and chase is used when an attacking team is having difficulty getting past the D at the blue line.
Clearly the quickest way to defeat this maneuver is to get to the puck first. If the attacking team sends two forecheckers, the D must quickly pass behind the net to the other D or up the boards to a wing. If the puck is shot in such a manner as to end up behind the net, the goalie should go behind the net and stop the puck and leave it for the D. The goalie should leave the puck slightly off the boards to make it easier to pick up.
Getting the Puck
A number of techniques can be used to get the puck from the opposition in the defensive zone. Each attacker should be covered by a member of the defending team and attacked quickly whenever they have the puck. All of the stick checking techniques should be used.
Position is also critical in no check hockey. If you can anticipate a pass you can intercept it. You should be light on your feet as a pass may be directed through your skates and you can stop it there. Think like the other team and observe how they are passing the puck. Check in with your team mates on the bench and share observations.
Finally, getting two on one is an effective strategy to pop the puck free. If one of your teammates can tie up an attacker, you can frequently pull the puck away to go back on the offense. You need to be very observant and careful with this tactic as it will always leave one player on the attacking team open and not covered.
Skate with the puck to open passing lanes
Once the D has gained control of the puck, it is best to skate a few steps before passing. These initial few steps can allow you to avoid forecheckers and open up passing lanes for a clean breakout pass. Many times attackers will give you more time and room if you skate it out. One of the best places to skate with the puck is behind the net as you can easily shake a forechecker by making a quick stop or skating around the net quickly on the opposite side of the attacker. (Wayne Gretsky was so effective with this technique early in his career that the area behind the net was referred to as “Gretsky’s office.”)
Another technique is to skate up the boards and move around a forechecker by passing the puck to yourself. This is done by shooting the puck at an angle into the boards behind the forechecker and picking it up on the other side.
Once a defender has control of the puck the other D should move behind the goal line. The defender with the puck can pass quickly behind the net to this D and thereby provide this D with open ice to skate forward or make a clean breakout pass. This technique requires practice and a good working relationship with a defensive pair as timing is very critical. The D without the puck cannot go behind the goal line if an attacker remains in front of the net. However, if done well this maneuver is one of the best ways to begin a breakout.
The best breakout passes are always crisp and onto your teammates stick. The longer the pass, the greater the probability of an interception. The safest breakout pass is up the boards to your wing. However, if the other team’s D is pinching in and not moving back, you may need to pass to your center, or a breaking wing, in the middle of the ice. Be very careful of passes across the center of the ice and never make a pass directly in front of the goal. Chapter 8 provides a more complete explanation of breakouts.
Finally, if you are trapped and are having a hard time making an effective breakout pass, ice (or clear) the puck. Icing will allow the play to stop and will also provide the opportunity for a line change. It is always better to have a face off in your zone, than to play defense tired and out of control.
Defensive Zone face offs
In the defensive zone it is necessary that the defensive team has a plan to cover each of the members of the attacking team. If defenders are unclear on who to cover they should talk with teammates to clarify this before the puck is dropped. If the defensive team wins the face off the center should pull it back to the D in the corner in order to give them time to start the break out.
Every team will be penalized and will have to play one or two skaters short. The ability to kill a penalty and not allow the other team to score can put game momentum on the side of the penalized team.
The basic strategy of penalty killing is twofold. First, prevent shots that are real scoring opportunities. Second, get control of the puck and skate with it or ice it in order to take time off the penalty clock.
The most commonly used penalty killing defensive technique is the box. As your opposing team enters the zone, you configure your defensive players in a box formation. Each player should expand the box as far as possible without letting any attackers into the box. If you can get close enough to your opponents you can stick check or intercept a pass. The D must keep the attackers away from the front of the net because many shots will come from the point and the offense will attempt screens and tip ins. If you forecheck, it should be one player only and D’s should never go into the corner or to the boards.
If you are playing two skaters short, (or in-line one player short) the box becomes a triangle and must be somewhat smaller. Again, the defensive players must keep the attackers away from the front of the net and make the other team shoot from as far a distance as is possible.
If your goalie catches a shot in their glove they should hold it in order run time off the penalty clock. Other time expending techniques include holding the puck onto the boards with your skates and skating slowly in the neutral zone once you have regained possession. If all else fails, icing is a very good technique.
The players that participate in penalty killing can be a specific “penalty killing” team or simply the set of players that are left on the ice after a penalty has been assessed. In most adult hockey it is usually the latter as most teams want to have a fair allocation of ice time. If a D has been penalized, one of the wings needs to rotate back to play this position or a D from the bench needs to play. The next lines on the bench should be communicate to make sure which players will enter for the next shift, especially if you are changing on the fly.
The Solid D
We believe that nothing better can be said about a hockey team than “they have solid D.” Having a consistent and effective defense allows the wings and center to be more aggressive and it allows the goalie time to rest and prepare. Playing solid D is not glamorous but it will win games.
Lifetime Hockey, LLC © 2015