Offense

The principal goal in hockey is to put the puck into the net. A goal is scored when the entire puck has crossed the goal line. Accomplishing this requires both team strategy and individual skills.

All offensive hockey begins at one end of the ice or the other. It begins with either the break-out or the forecheck. Offensive hockey depends upon puck possession (the dump and chase strategy to the contrary). The team that possesses the puck most of the time wins the game. If your team can break-out from its end of the rink and forecheck effectively, while containing the other team so they cannot break out of their zone you will be a very effective offensive team regardless of what else you do.

This chapter is divided into five parts: 1) The Breakout, 2) Play within the neutral zone, 3) Play within the offensive zone, 4) Face-offs and 5) Power Play Strategies.

The Breakout

Most offensive strategies begin with the break-out from your end of the ice. There are a many break-out schemes and patterns. Since the focus of this book is on beginning hockey we will stick to basic hockey break-out patterns. These patterns have proven to be effective and are easily understood by the beginning player.

The leaders on the break-out are the defensive players. It is their responsibility to gain possession of the puck and to start the offense by getting the puck to the forwards. Starting the break-out requires a calm and collected approach—bad things happen when you panic; but the break-out must be done quickly. For these reasons, the break-out is the one play that a team should practice with and without pressure. Many adult leagues find practice to be a luxury. However, if your team does find time to practice – practice the breakout. No single play can have a greater impact upon the success of your team.

The break-out begins when the offensive team obtains possession of the puck in their defensive zone. A simple break-out pattern positions the wings along the boards even with the face-off circle dots. The center is positioned in an angular skating pattern across the high slot area moving toward the player with the puck or curling up ice but in a position to catch a pass. (Note that the wings and center do not take these positions until its team has obtained clear possession of the puck).

The defensive player who gains possession of the puck has several options. The player may skate the puck out of the zone. This option requires the defensive player to be a very good skater and stick handler. It is a risky approach. The defensive partner must back up the rushing defensive player while the wings and center move up the rink prepared to accept a lead pass. If the defensive player gains the offensive zone, one of the forwards must take the defensive player’s point or defensive position at the blue line. Once the offensive opportunity is over, the defensive player should rotate back to the point and switch positions with the forward who took that player’s defensive position.

Another, more conservative option, is to skate a few strides with the puck and pass to the wing on the same side as the defensive player. If the wing is positioned along the boards perpendicular to the face-off dot in a position to receive a pass, this is an easy pass to make. Once the wing receives the puck, it can be moved up the rink by skating, chipping it off the boards past the point or passing to another forward.

Your safety net. Your goal is a safe haven. Use it if you have the opportunity to begin the break-out. Once you have gained possession of the puck go to the back of the net. If a forechecker chases you behind the net, a foolish move for them, skate out on the opposite site of the net. You can gain a step upon the pursuing forechecker every time. Be sure to look up and make sure that there isn’t another forechecker waiting for you. If you face a two person forecheck, pass to your defensive partner (who is hopefully positioned some where behind the net probably toward one of the corners).

Be sure to move the puck quickly. From behind the net—you are in a position to make a pass to a wing on either side of the rink. You may need to skate a step or two, but the pass can be made from there.  You also have the option of skating outside or around the net to pass to a forward who is waiting in a higher position or to a curling center.

A forward’s responsibility on the break-out is to move into a proper break-out position when and only when your team gains complete possession of the puck. If possession is uncertain, maintain your defensive position. Prematurely moving to a break-out position will hurt your team defensively.

The best position for a wing is to move to a spot near the face-off dot along the boards with one’s back to the boards and facing the play. If you are playing your natural side (left wing on left and right wing on the right side), your stick blade is positioned to receive the puck on the forehand. You can also curl to the boards so that you are moving when the puck is passed to your stick.

As soon as the forward receives the puck, the player should begin skating a stride or two unless a quick pass to another forward is available. Skating a few steps gives you more time to make a pass. This is true of both defensive and offensive players. A forechecker will hesitate when a player begins to skate, when they gain possession or receive a pass. The forechecker is unsure whether the player will skate the puck and deke or pass. The forechecker will slow the pursuit giving the puck carrier a bit of extra time to make a play.

Another reason for skating the puck a stride or two is that it masks a player’s intentions. If you are standing still, clearly your only choice is to pass the puck (or it will be taken from you). Although you may not aware of it in the moment, the forecheckers are very aware of it. They will pursue you like a “hound dog after a rabbit” hoping to anticipate and intercept a pass or to take it away from you—a defensive player’s worst fear (other than falling down when facing an attacking forward). Forecheckers are more aggressive in pursuing players that have their backs to the play, are fumbling the puck or are not moving.

The defensive players should trail the play in the event a forward makes a mistake or a forechecker is successful in taking possession. The defensive players are also in a position to support the forwards and it a position for a neutral zone regroup (basically the forwards who do not see a clear opportunity to enter the offensive zone pass the puck back to the defenders to regroup the offensive attack). A neutral zone regroup and use of the defenders is a good play because it changes the position of the puck on the ice and may open up better angles for the forwards to receive a pass.

A note for forwards, if you receive a break-out pass and begin skating up the ice and see a defensive player at the point who is positioned or has started to “pinch in,” skate away from the boards. Defensive players will usually retreat sensing they are vulnerable to a deke and being beaten. Skating away from the boards on a forward course also provides the puck carrier with an additional option to deke and move to the space created between the puck carrier and the boards. Many players feel more comfortable skating along the boards—probably unconsciously thinking that if they mishandle the puck at least on one-side of their body that it can be easily retrieved. But skating up the boards allows the defensive player to “line you up” and pinch in because unless you pass the puck there is only one direction you can go.

Breakout Problems

One of the recurring problems associated with the breakout are the wings postioned too high in the zone and not staying low and perpendicular with the face-off circle dots. Sometimes offensive players are impatient or think that if they stray further toward the other team’s goal that they are in a better offensive position. When this occurs defensive players must make a longer and less accurate pass and at a greater angle if they are positioned near their goal. When a defensive player is forced to make this type of pass, it is more likely to miss its target and to be intercepted by the opposing team. The most effective passes during the break-out are short passes on tight angles. Wings who are staying low or a center that curls low assist in making this happen. One note for the centers, mirror what your defensive puck carry is doing. For example, if your defender is carrying the puck behind the net, skate parallel to his/her movements.

Another common mistake of beginning teams is trying to break-out along the boards. This occurs when a player chooses to clear the puck around the boards to a wing who is also along the boards rather than passing it to its players to clear the zone. This is also known as “feeding the points” of the other team.

This is usually ineffective against a strong team. At the time it seems to be the right thing to do–get rid of it–throw it up the boards and hope a wing gets to it or that it will slide out of the zone. It is actually counter-productive. First, possession is relinquished. Second, it allows the opposing team’s defensive players to “crash the points.” It creates a lot of running around and usually results in bad things for the team trying to break-out in this way. This can be discouraging and costly. Show pose and patience to execute a successful break-out. If you have to “eat” the puck, that is okay—it is far better than essentially passing it to the opposing team’s points so that they can get another offensive opportunity.

Neutral Zone Play

One of the keys to a successful offense is both player movement and puck movement. Movement confuses defenders and the puck can be moved much more quickly than a player skating and carrying the puck. Weaving type movements also create better passing angles for both the passer and receiver. It is much easier to pass to a player who is coming toward you than a player who is skating away. This is also true for the receiver of the pass who obtains the pass on the side rather than from behind. To advance the offense in the neutral zone, it is important to continue passing the puck forward to the player closest to the offensive zone. This is called “head manning” the puck. It is a cardinal sin to continue skating with the puck when one of your teammates is ahead of the play and in good position to receive a pass. Hanging up your teammates at the blue line is not team oriented, it can cause an offside violation and it is frustrating to everyone. I remember someone asking Tom Bast (our head coach from Red Deer, Alberta) how to get their teammates to make a pass when they are waiting or at the blue line. Tom’s answer was “just go off-side. They will get the message and make the pass.”

Neutral zone play helps set up the offensive zone attack. The simplest approach to organizing the offense is for players to stay in their lanes. If there are three forwards, the rink is divided into three parts with each player staying in their “lane.” Every forward knows where they are supposed to be. Unfortunately this is also simple for the defenders who can anticipate passes and more easily defend the attack.

Player movement especially in the neutral zone and approaching the offensive zone is very effective at confusing defenders and putting offensive players in a good position to score. This is accomplished by the player who makes a pass, to skate behind and to the opposite side of the receiver. This type of movement is fun and easy to practice. It can set up situations where drop passes can be used and it can really confuse defenders whose defensive system does not account for movement.

In hockey, one of the most important plays for the offense is not being “off-sides.” An off-side infraction disrupts the best rush. It can lead to frustration, loss of momentum and can be personally embarrassing for the player that commits the infraction. A player may not precede the puck into the offensive zone. Generally it is one of the non-puck carriers who commits the infraction. The player either is not observant or anticipates a movement that doesn’t occur. As long as a portion of a player’s skate is on any part of the blue line when the puck crosses the blue line or center line in in-line hockey, they are okay and it is not off-sides. Sometimes it is necessary to drag a skate or to skate laterally to avoid being off-sides. Weaving also helps here, receiving a pass laterally can help avoid an off-sides situation.

If the offensive team is stopped by the defenders before reaching the offensive zone, it is perfectly acceptable to regroup and to move the puck back to the defensive players and to start the attack again. It is a smart way to maintain possession and to begin the offensive attack anew.

Typical Offensive Situations

Three on One: In a three on one, the offensive team should get a quality shot. Typically the defensive player is trying to play two of the players (those without the puck) like a two on one and the goaltender is responsible for the shooter. To foil this defensive strategy, the attacking forwards need to create a situation where the defensive player cannot cover two players and the goaltender must be forced to move.

One approach is to have one of the players trail the two lead players. This is more like a two on one, however, the trailing player cannot be effectively covered by the defender. One of the lead players is the puck-carrier. At an opportune moment, probably twelve to fifteen feet from the net or when the defender forces a pass, move the puck back to the trailer who takes a quick shot. The leading forwards act as screens and rush the net looking for rebound opportunities.

Two on One: As mentioned in the three on one, the goaltender will likely cover the shooter and the defender tries to prevent a pass so the goaltender does not have to move. The offensive players must make the goaltender move to get a quality shot. Movement by the goaltender creates all kinds of possibilities. Why? Goaltenders who are not forced to move have the opportunity to set up good angles. They are well balanced and they are difficult to score upon. A moving goaltender may leave openings on either side of the net or in the five hole (the open area between their legs.)

If the puck carrier can attract the defender to commit to them the other offensive player can be freed for a pass and a shot forcing the goaltender to move. A deke or front to back stick handling movement could attract the defender to the puck-carrier. If this occurs, the puck carrier should pass—preferably a flip or saucer pass (the defender may try to use the stick to block the pass) to their partner for a quick shot. The passer rushes the net looking for a rebound or a return pass.

One on One: This is an unusual situation, but it does occur from time to time. The offensive player needs to try and deke the defender and to try to get by to get a break-away opportunity. The best approach is to address the defender straight on. If you are unable to deke and shake the defender, keep skating and hope that the defender keeps a good distance away and does not challenge you. In this situation, use the defender as a screen and get a quick shot on the side or through the defender’s legs. Sometimes you can stop quickly and the defender will not anticipate this and will keep skating. You then can get an open shot or pass the puck to a trailing teammate.
“We watched a player from Hartford, Connecticut in a tournament in Toronto who was a very average player carry the puck over the blue line and stop. He was very effective at making a good pass to a leading or trailing teammate. Another time he stopped and took a slap shot as his teammates rushed the net. It was his only move, but it worked for him.” — Mark.

Breakways: On a breakaway try to think about this play from the goaltender’s point of view. Goaltenders will try to come out and challenge the shooter cutting down the angle and then retreating as the shooter continues toward the net. Sometimes a goaltender will stay in the net and sometimes the goaltender is bent on not only challenging you, but trying to knock the puck off your stick.

If the goaltender comes out to challenge, deke and try to go around the net-minder. If the goaltender stays in the net, a deke won’t work so shoot low. Stay away from the glove hand. The faster you skate the better. A retreating goaltender has less time to retreat and react to a speeding forward. If the goaltender goes down, you need to lift the puck up to get it over the net-minder’s body. Also consider shooting while skating. A player who starts gliding before they shoot is signaling their intention and the goaltender can prepare for the shot.

Play in the Offensive Zone

There are innumerable systems and philosophies of offensive hockey. Most are legitimate. The approach outlined here is for the beginning player and for that reason is kept simple.

An old hockey pattern is to skate in lanes–the wings stay in a lane and the center stays in a lane up the rink. Hockey has now evolved where players don’t stay in lanes and change their positions as part of the offensive attack.

A simple system emphasizes puck movement to the high slot and to the points. Under this system, a forward should always stay higher than the face-off dot when the puck is deep in the zone. This is a good strategy because the high forward is in position to backcheck and help the defense. The high forward is also in a good scoring position.

The high slot is also an excellent shooting position for a number of reasons. First, the defensive players do not like to leave the front of the net because they are not in a position to help their goaltender with rebounds. Defensive players also don’t like offensive players slipping behind them. The high slot, if uncovered by the center or wing, is a great place to be to not only receive a pass but to take a shot. Second, it is also a place where a quick shot can beat a good goaltender. From that position, it is difficult for the goaltender to cut down the shooting angle. The shooter has good openings to shoot at from that position.

Another system is the high and low approach. If the puck is low, move it high and if the puck is high move in. Under this system, when the offense has control of the puck deep in the zone, possibly in the corners or behind the net, the best position for a scoring forward is the high slot area twenty feet from the net. Many players mistakenly believe that the best offensive chances are always going to be right in front of the net. This is not the case if the puck is in the corner. There is a lot of congestion in front of the net, in fact the average defensive player knows that a puck is likely to be passed from the corner to an offensive player who is standing directly in front of the net. Those passes are easy to deflect or intercept and the offensive player can be easily tied up. But if the offensive player is higher—like in the high slot, the pass is more likely to get past the traffic and the offensive player will have time to get off a good shot.

Conversely, when the puck is high, or at the points, the best scoring position is in front of the net where rebounds can be found, deflections can occur, and screens are effective. A forward who has control of the puck in the corners should consider passing to the points. This is an underutilized offensive tool especially for beginning players. The points are a good choice when they are not well covered. When the points are open, it means that the defensive team’s wings have collapsed around the net trying to help out their defensive players. With their numerical superiority around the net it does not make sense to pass there. But a pass to the point will create good shooting opportunities and will force the defensive team’s wings to cover the points opening up opportunities around the net.

A play to consider is placing a forward to the side of the net and rather than shooting the puck on net and looking for a screen or deflection, the forward catches the “shot/pass” and moves the puck to a teammate in the high slot for a shot while the passing forward moves in looking for a rebound, tip-in, and to screen.
“I saw a very interesting point strategy in a tournament game. The shooter aimed for a spot just off net so that the puck hit the boards and rebounded to the front of the goal. A teammate knew this play and anticipated the rebound pass was in a good position to slam the puck into the net. The team I watched executed this player over an over during the course of the game with some success. Plus, when the puck did go on net the goaltender was a bit confused and almost gave up a goal anticipating a rebound pass.” — Mark

Team Philosophy

Every team has its own philosophy of how they play the game. Some of that philosophy exudes from the personalities, strengths, and styles of the players on the team. Let’s consider two types of approaches.

The Aggressive Style: This offensive philosophy stresses outworking and pressuring the opponent. Eventually the opponent gets disorganized and tires resulting in offensive opportunities. This approach requires superior conditioning or at least better players and involves fast skating, dump and chase, and winning the puck possession battles along the boards. It works well against a less conditioned opponent who has better players or against a weaker opponent. It does not work well when playing an opponent who has the same level or higher conditioning and/or has better players.

The Defensive Style: This philosophy is one in which the team thinks defense first and offense second. In fact this team uses its defense to create offensive opportunities. This strategy can work well against a superior opponent. The objective is to pursue offensive opportunities only where there is a clear advantage. Offensive rushes generally involve only two forwards with the third always trailing watching for possession changes. In the defensive style, the defensive players only participate in the offense when they have a clear advantage or when their team is on the power play.

Winning Face-offs

Winning a face-off requires technical skill and a team strategy for what will happen when your team gains possession of the puck.

Technical Skills: In starting the face-off, the Official is trying to fairly give each player an opportunity at winning the draw. In doing so, the Official is trying to drop the puck so that it lands flat on its side. Knowing this, it is important to observe the puck in the hands of the Official and to watch it all the way to the rink’s surface.

Consider sliding your lower hand down the stick to a comfortable position just above where the stick’s blade begins. This will provide greater leverage. It will require bending at the knees and a more bent-overall position. The strongest position is to take the draw on your backhand and sweep the puck back to your waiting teammates. It is possible to win a draw on your forehand by sweeping the puck to a teammate waiting in line with you, but this is not as effective in the offensive zone because the goal is to get the puck back to a teammate who has time to get off a quick shot. In the neutral zone it is more helpful to set up an effective attack by sweeping the puck back to a waiting defensive player.

For this reason, team’s may want to consider utilizing different players in the face-off circles in the offensive end depending upon which side of the net the puck is to be dropped. For example, if the puck is to be dropped at the face-off circle to the left of the opposition’s net as you face it, it is more effective to have a right handed shooter taking the draw because they are able to sweep the puck back on their backhand into the slot area. Similarly, if the puck is on the right hand side of the net, a left handed center has an advantage in drawing the puck back to the slot area for a shot.

Many players believe that it is the quicker stick or the person with the quicker reflexes that wins the draws. Again, there is some truth to that, but strategy can play a bigger role in winning a face-off than sheer quickness and reflexes.

As the puck is dropped, go for the opponent’s stick first and the puck second. This can be done several ways, either knocking the opponent’s stick away and then sweeping the puck back or lifting or controlling the opposing player’s stick and then gaining possession of the puck. Sometimes an opponent can be simply tied up in this way and another player on your team can skate into the circle and gain possession of the puck.

Slapping the Opposing Player’s Stick. When the puck is being dropped, hit the opponent’s stick approximately six inches above the blade and then sweep the puck back. This should be done subtlety and quickly.

Lifting and Blocking the Opposing Player’s Stick: Quickly move your stick forward and place it between the opposing player’s stick and the puck and block it. Place your body weight on your stick’s blade so that it is difficult for the opposing player to move it. Once the opponent’s stick is blocked, sweep the puck back to a teammate. Sweeping the puck back does not require full blade contact with the puck. It is sufficient to use the toe of the blade and to flick the puck back with it.

If the opposing center is winning more draws, consider changing your tactics. If the player is hitting your stick and then going for the puck, lift your stick so that the opponent misses and then go for the puck.

Team Strategy: Team planning for the offensive face-off is as important as a center that has the technical skills to win the draw. The offensive team should line up in such a way so that if they win the draw they will get a high quality shot from the slot area.

One approach is to position one of the wings in the slot area behind and to the side of the center with the other wing situated at the hash mark closest to the net. It is the responsibility of the other wing to block the opposing wing or defensive player from reaching the shooter in the slot. This also can assist in screening the goaltender. If the puck is drawn past the wing, a defensive player is in a good position to move in and take a shot.
Another approach to the offensive face-off is to align the center and wings across in a straight line. Under this alignment, the center can draw the puck using either the forehand or backhand. The wing closest to the net can maintain a position a few feet back from the opposing player. In this approach, the player has time to get a quick shot off in a position much lower in the slot area.

The key to the offensive face-off is discussion and planning so that the center communicates exactly how the puck will be drawn backwards and the wings know what is expected of them. Don’t let the offensive face-off become a surprise or a secret. It is okay to briefly talk prior to the face-off and you will see teams doing this frequently. A few key words such as “I’ll draw it straight back to you” is all that is required. Review the discussion in the Defense chapter to learn how defensive players are taught to defeat offensive strategies during the face-off. It is also important to consider what you will do if your team loses the face-off – how will your team move into position to forecheck and attempt to regain possession?

The Power Play

By definition a power play exists anytime one team has a numerical advantage in players on the ice. Your team’s goal on the power play is to use this numerical advantage to get high quality shots. Professional, College and High School teams have special “power play units”, a group of players selected for their offensive and stick handling ability for power play situations. This is difficult if not impossible in adult hockey where all players expect equal playing time and practice time is at a premium. In adult hockey, teams should be aware of power play principles and practice the concepts.

There are two types of power play strategies that will be considered here. One approach is the “spread” strategy which involves spreading out the defense team so that the offensive team on the power play can take advantage of their numerical superiority. The other approach is the “concentration” strategy which involves trying to concentrate a clear advantage in numbers in a smaller area of the rink.

Spread: The spread strategy involves the center maintaining a high position in the middle of the rink with the defensive players positioned slightly closer to the net and the wings down low (Figure 8-8.) In in-line hockey one of the defensive players would serve this offensive role. Through quick puck movement, the offensive team seeks to “spread out” the defensive team so that they make a mistake and allow an offensive player to break free for a pass and a good quality shot. The high forward acts much like a basketball point guard directing the play.

Concentration: The concentration strategy involves positioning three players on one side of the rink including a defensive player at the point. On this side of the rink the three offensive players have a numerical advantage over the two defensive players on that side. Down low, near the net, this play actually becomes a two on one situation because the high defensive forward must pay attention to the point player on that side. The offensive players who have possession of the puck down low in the this situation have several choices including passing to each other trying to entice the defensive player out of position for a good shot. If the defensive player leaves the player in possession alone then that player can move in for a shot. There is also an opportunity to pass to the other wing who is likely tied up with the opposite side defensive player. The puck can also be passed to the point for a shot with the players down low rushing the net.

Keep control of the puck and win

The key to offensive hockey is to “possess the puck.” Whether it is face-offs or break-outs, maintaining puck possession is the difference between winning and losing. Plus – its a lot more fun.. Creating situations where the offensive team has a numerical advantage will lead to quality scoring chances and goals.

  • Areas of Focus:
    Have at least two good breakout plays and practice them.
  • When moving through the neutral zone maximize puck and player movement.
  • In the offensive zone make sure each player understands the position the team wants them to maintain. Decide whether your team will play an aggressive or defensive style.
  • Learn to win face offs and make sure your teammates
  • know which face-off play you are going to use.

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