Game Strategy

Hockey is a game of conditioning, reflexes, speed and strength, but there are also significant psychological and intellectual aspects of the game that are often overlooked – especially by beginning players.

We think that there are some simple team strategies, based on each game situation, that seem to work well in adult recreational hockey. (But – hey if you can figure out a good way to execute the neutral zone trap more power to you. We will worry about making sure everyone on our team knows where the rink for next week’s game is located).

In any hockey game there are key points where the momentum appears to be going for you or against you. These key moments can energize or discourage a player or a team. Let’s explore those key points by beginning with the pre-game – in the locker room before the action begins.

Strategy: Pre-Game Locker Room

It is important that players get to the rink early; at least one-half hour before the game begins. Early arrival allows a player to dress in a relaxed way, enjoy the company of teammates, and prepare mentally for the game. Hopefully, your skates are sharpened before you arrive at the rink and you have remembered all of your equipment. A player arriving early for a game has the extra time needed to get their skates sharpened or to track down a replacement piece of equipment. Here’s a tip: if a teammate forgets a piece of equipment–say an elbow pad or a shin pad, check the rink’s “lost and found” for a short-term loan. One night we had a guy wearing mite’s gloves when he forgot his own–he made it through the game.

During this pre-game time, players can talk about their day, their families or activities and then begin to focus on the opponent and the game. The discussion can cover what happened the last time this opponent was played, what are their strengths (e.g. two player forecheck), their weaknesses (e. g. goaltending) and how well your team matches up with them. Sometimes it is helpful to talk about specific opposition players who are exceptionally talented, or a defensive player who likes to rush the puck, a “hot-headed” player, or a goaltender who has certain tendencies. The discussion may also center on what players may be missing from your team and how your team will adjust to it.

The last five minutes of the time in the locker room should focus on game goals and strategies. Generally, the captain leads the discussion outlining the forward line players, defensive pairs, and reminds players of what will occur if there is a penalty. This is also a good time to talk about the on-rink pre-game warm-up. Some teams actually engage in team visualization of their goals, others have a short period of time called “heads down” in which the team as a group bows their heads and focuses on the game for thirty seconds to a minute and then they head out to the rink. If you think that is silly or it won’t work for you team–that’s okay, every team has its unique personality and culture.

Your goaltender—who is the team’s most important player–should lead the team out of the locker room and on to the rink. The rest of the team should follow as a group. It feels much more like a team if all the players parade to the rink at the same time. Conversely, a team looks disorganized if some of the players go out to the rink and others straggle out later.

Strategy: Pre-Game On the rink

Teams should have a pre-planned warm-up scheme that every player understands. The time period before a game is fairly limited and teams need to make the most of it. When the rink is available for the players, all players should be ready to skate.

The on rink warm-up depends upon the individual choices of each team. If there is a ten to fifteen minute warm-up time, one approach is to allow players to individually warm-up by skating around the rink, stretching their arms and legs. Goaltenders sometimes have an extensive stretching ritual. After a five minute general warm-up, the organized portion of the on-rink pre-game warm-up begins. A drill that involves skating and passing is essential.

An example of this type of drill is skating in a clock-wise fashion within the team’s end of the rink while half the players have pucks and make short passes to circling teammates. The direction is then changed counter-clockwise and continued passing occurs. This drill should only be done for approximately two to three minutes.

Next, the goaltender needs to be warmed up. On an ice rink, players should line at the blue line and on an in-line rink half way between the goal and the center line. The goaltender should face a variety of shots: slap, snap, wrist, and flip from a long distance. After a round of shooting, players should move to the top of the face-off circles for another round of shots.

A few rules will help your goalie. Keep the shots down. Players don’t want to physically hurt or hurt the confidence of their own goaltender before a game. Shoot low, you are not trying to score, rather you are attempting to warm-up your goaltender and help the player to “see” the angles.

At this point, a team could chose a one-on-none drill against the goaltender or a three-on-one with an intact line and a defensive player defending the goaltender. Let’s look at both.

One type of one-on-none drill is the “corner drill.” Basically half the team goes into each corner of their end of the rink and has several pucks/balls. A player skates out fairly high and as the player turns toward the goal, the player in the opposite corner makes a pass which the player catches and skates in to shoot one-on-none against the goaltender. This drill alternates from one corner to the other (Figure 2.) Although this can be a fun drill, we do not recommend it for the pre-game warm-up because players can end up standing around waiting in line. This can lead to a sluggish start for a team.

The three-on-one drill involves the wings and center who will be playing with each other during the game starting from the center of the rink attacking a lone defensive player. This drill emphasizes passing and skating by the forwards and gives the defensive player an opportunity to skate backwards while facing an attacker before the game begins. The drill is culminated by a shot on goal. Once the puck is shot, the drill ends and the next line and defensive player begins. One safety note here – it is important that once the drill has ended players must circle to the outside as they move back to get in line. More than one player has been hurt in the pre-game warm-ups by a collision with a player on the next line coming in.

It has been our experience that if a team arrives early, collectively enters the rink and has an organized warm-up – the team will start the game quickly. Conversely, if those things do not happen, a team can start slowly as if the first period is the warm-up and the game can be determined right there.

Teammates can prepare each other for the start of the game by gathering around their goaltender after the referee’s have indicated that the warm-up period is over and just before the game begins. The team can gather in a semi-circle around the goaltender and briefly restate the team’s game goals and then as a team says “1-2-3” and shouts “let’s go.” It sounds corny, but try it. It creates nice team camaraderie and a good start for the game. Some teams do it at their bench. The team’s that don’t have a “rouser” to start the game may be intimidated by an opponent that does!

Strategy: Beginning of the game and each period

The beginning of the game and each of the periods can be critical moments of the game. The first minutes of the game can set the pace for the entire game. An untimely goal scored against a team at the beginning of the game could be the game winner. If your team is able to score a goal at the beginning of the game or the second or third periods, it can be a huge psychological lift. This is especially true when you consider how few goals are usually scored during a game.
Teams need to pay attention to the beginning of the period for this reason. Not only should your team consider starting fast and trying to score a goal, but it must avoid a slow start which may allow your opponent to score on you.

A good strategy to get the momentum on your side is “dump and chase.” As soon your team gets possession of the puck you should dump the puck into the opponent’s corner. You need not try fancy rushes initially as the other team may be nervous or cold and may make a mistake while trying to get control of the puck. An aggressive forecheck after the dump and chase will improve your odds in the first few minutes.

End of each Period

The last minute of the first and second period are also key moments in the game. A goal scored at this time can be a significant lift for a team and a major setback for the team that is scored upon. Many a game has been decided by the goal in the last few seconds of a period.
“There is nothing worse than another team scoring against you at the beginning or end of period. Ask the Russian Hockey Team in the 1980 Olympic Games. In the second period of the semifinal game against Team USA, Mark Johnson split two defenders and scored with two seconds left. The Soviets never were able to overcome that goal.” – Mark

After a Goal is Scored

This is also a key moment in the hockey game. Although we have not located any statistics on this point, it does seem that many goals are scored shortly after an initial goal is scored.
The team that has scored is likely to either continue the momentum of an offensive attack which may lead to another goal or to immediately giving up a goal. There are two theories which are advanced to address this phenomenon. One is that after a line scores a goal it should be replaced by the next line because it will relax and is likely to give up a goal. The other theory is that the scoring line should stay out if they have not played a full shift because they are “hot” and are likely to score again. You need to decide what your team’s philosophy is in this situation.

The team that is scored upon is vulnerable to being scored upon again. The team is psychologically reeling and is vulnerable to giving up another goal. Many teams will replace the defensive unit and forward line after a goal is scored for just this reason. The replacement of a unit is no guarantee. Teams need to prepare themselves for possible letdowns at these key moments and remind each other of it.

The Score is Tied Late in the Game

When there are five to eight minutes left in the game and the score is tied, a critical juncture has been reached. A team can win, lose or preserve a tie depending upon what it does from this point until the end of the game. This is a situation where your team needs to play conservative defense while seizing any offensive opportunities. Teams need to avoid going into a “defensive shell.” Otherwise the opponent may get many good opportunities that would not present themselves if your team was playing a little more aggressively in the offensive end. Watch for the opponent who goes into a “defensive shell” – this can be an excellent time for an offensive surge while avoiding giving up any easy chances.

Your Team Scores Early and is Ahead

You may wonder why this is situation is deserving of concern for your team. Hey, you have scored early and are ahead by two or three goals—what’s to be concerned? It may not be a problem if you are the superior team and this is the direct result of having better players. In that situation, there is likely to be no let down. However, if your team is playing a competitive or possibly superior opponent, you should assess why the early and significant lead? Is your team playing extremely well or is the opponent playing very poorly or having goaltending problems?

Teams need to avoid becoming relaxed and believing that the game is won. The effort which leads to the early scoring and a lead should be emphasized and continued. Short shifts and extra effort are required. Plus, it is easy to play well with the lead. Some teams are excellent when they are ahead, but are poor at playing when they are behind. Avoid the momentum shift and keep doing the things that got you there.

Your Team is Behind Early

This is the time when the true character of a team is revealed. Any team can play well when they are ahead, it is the team that plays well from behind, that can make a “come back” that is a team of character. A team in this situation needs to assess why they are behind and do so early in the game. If it is because you are playing a superior opponent, then there may not be a lot that your team can do.

However, if your team is playing poorly, has taken too many penalties or has found itself in an identifiable pattern, then correction is necessary. It can be helpful to play more conservatively for a while or for the remainder of the period in order for a team to regain its confidence and to correct a problem. Sometimes it may be necessary to take the time-out early in the game—after two or three quick goals have been scored by an opponent in order to break the opponent’s momentum and to give a team an opportunity to discuss and straighten out the situation.

Sometimes it is helpful to slow down the game by icing or clearing the puck more often to get face-offs or for your goaltender to hold more shots for face-offs. Line changes, match-ups and shorter shifts should be considered. Sometimes nothing can be done and a team needs to learn from the experience so that it is not repeated. No one likes losing—especially early and often.

Either Team Scores Quick Goals in the Middle of a Close Game

Several quick goals scored in the middle of a tight game is a bellwether that momentum has shifted. This situation is very similar to when a team is scored upon or scores against a team early in a game and has a significant lead. Analysis needs to be made as to why the momentum has shifted so significantly at a time in the game when both teams appear to be evenly matched and very competitive. Corrective action is warranted at this time. This is also a time when the game needs to be slowed down, more face-offs, quicker line changes and the possible use of the time out.

If your team has done the scoring it must determine whether an all-out effort is now required to put the game away for good or if a more defensive approach is warranted. If the third goal comes quickly then the answer has been provided by the “hockey gods.” If the third goal does not come soon, then a team may be back into a competitive game; the momentum has shifted warranting more conservative play.

Preserving a Lead Late in a Game

This is a crucial time because it may determine whether your team wins or loses. It also can be a key time if your goaltender has a shutout and the team is out to preserve it. A team should not go into a defensive shell, but should start thinking about playing more conservatively with about five minutes left in the game. This can involve:

*No defensive players crashing the net from the points
*Avoiding penalties
*Clearing the defensive zone carefully without taking chances
*Standing up the offensive players at the blue line
*Avoiding passing back to the points in the offensive zone
*Getting whistles whenever possible to allow fresh players to enter the game and to disrupt the offensive flow of the opponent’s attack.

Behind by a Goal Late in the Game?

This can be a frenetic time as a team tries to score the equalizing goal. Some teams panic and end up being very ineffective or giving up a goal and taking themselves out of a one goal game.
At this point in the game, the opponent is likely to be moving into a more defensive and conservative posture. Your team needs to pick up the pace and to take more chances. Some things that your team should pursue at this time in the game should include:

*Shoot low—the goaltenders are tired late in the game and very vulnerable to the low shot; they are also likely to go down and not get up so quickly—be aware of this and look to shoot over the shoulder on the rebound.
*Players need to continue playing as a team and not allow individual players to try and “do it alone.” This is not likely to be helpful and puts a lot of pressure on individual players. A team will lose good offensive opportunities if they cease playing as a team.
*Avoid making the “home run” pass and stick to good positioning and offensive attack methods;
*Allow the defensive players to carry the puck if they are not under pressure. At this point in the game the opponent will frequently allow the defensive player to skate it up as they are retreating and are willing to give ground.
*Defensive players may need to take more chances in the offensive zone by pinching in and going after loose pucks on the offensive boards.

Strategy: Pulling the Goaltender

If your team has not been successful in getting the equalizing goal utilizing the methods outlined above, it may be necessary to “pull” your goaltender. This is a “pull out all the stops” decision. It is probably a better strategy than in basketball where the team that is behind tries to foul its way back into the game by hoping that their opponent misses free throws while they make their shots or shoot three pointers.

However, it is no guaranteed strategy and needs to be utilized at a key moment in the game. Generally, the goaltender should be removed with a minute to a minute and a half left in the game. This gives the team with the extra attacker an opportunity to make a offensive surge without having to rotate players.  A few years ago Roy, the Coach of the Colorado Avalanche had some success when his team was down by two goals to pull the goaltender any where from three to five minutes left in the game.  I believe he won some key games with this strategy.

The best place to “pull” the goaltender is when there is a face-off at the opponent’s end of the rink. Hopefully the team with the extra attacker can accomplish this by taking shots and forcing the opposition goaltender to hold the puck.

With an extra attacker the team that is behind needs to try and use the extra player to screen and tip the puck into the net. Two players should be on any loose pucks. It may be necessary to move one of the two defensive players into the attack leaving only one defensive player back. Pulling the goaltender is a risky move, so why not go for it? Don’t waste the effort by leaving a player back.

Defending against an extra attacker at this point in the game can be a hair raising experience. The situation should be played as any power play situation. The key to stopping the extra attacker is using the clock to your team’s advantage—work the puck along the boards and push it into the corners or to the neutral zone. Avoid trying to score a goal into the empty net, usually it results in icing or clearing and another offensive opportunity for the opponent. Stand up the opposition at the blue line. Forwards need to not be as concerned about the points as they normally would be. Fore checkers should try to cut off passes or to force bad passes. This is a time for a calm and collected approach to the game.