By John Shorey, Author of “Hockey Made Easy” – HockeyMadeEasy.com
The regular Youth Hockey season is winding down and the playoffs are scheduled to start shortly for many teams.
Whether you finished 1st or 8th during the regular season, the playoffs are a whole new ballgame. There will be some major upsets and a number of higher seeded teams will be eliminated if they are not physically and mentally prepared for the increased speed and intensity of the playoffs.
The good news is, Coaches still have time to fine-tune their forechecking and backchecking systems and mentally prepare their players for these very emotional and stressful playoff games ahead.
You must convince your players that everyone is important and they have a specific job to do. Some are scorers, others playmakers, and some are forecheckers and corner men who can dig the puck out along the boards and feed your goal scorers. “Just do your job.”
Some are offensive defencemen with goal scoring ability and others defensive defencemen who can break up the rush and prevent goals. Again, “Just do your job.”
But the most important player of all is the goaltender. The team will only go as far as your young goalie can take you. You must build your goalie’s confidence and help him out at all times.
Coaches must also make your players aware of the possibility of losing a series if there’s not a full 100% disciplined team effort from every player, on every shift, for the entire game. Winning your first playoff game is very important. Try not to fall behind in any playoff series. Be confident, but not over confident, or you could end up losing the series.
Coaches must also prepare a sound game plan and remind your players who the top players are on the opposing team. At the very least, know their sweater number because if you let them skate freely and don’t cover or check them closely, they will fill your net with pucks like Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby and you’ll be eliminated from the playoffs in the very first round.
Coaches – during the playoffs it is much easier to prevent goals than it is to score them. The proven theory is defensive hockey wins important games and playoff championships.
If you’re coaching a lower-seeded team, or one that has difficulty scoring goals, try to convince your players to buy into this defensive strategy of preventing goals first, then capitalizing on your opponent’s errors/turnovers and you will dramatically cut down your goals against and still score enough goals to compete against the top seeded teams.
One way of doing this is to play a sound defensive team game in all three zones of the rink. If over the Red Line, get the puck in deep if there is no one open to pass to and begin aggressive forechecking in the offensive zone to create a turnover and recover the loose puck.
Start backchecking by covering the wings in the neutral zone when the opposition control the puck. In your defensive zone, play a combination of man-to-man on the puck carrier and a flexible zone defence on the other open players. Be ready to quickly change to man-to-man when the puck is passed to the player you are covering.
Do not allow any odd-man rushes by covering the wide winger, this allows your defence to meet the rush outside your Blue Line and will create numerous off sides or loose pucks.
The next thing you must do is to limit the opposition’s quality shots on goal by keeping the puckcarrier to the outside along the boards or at least outside the faceoff circle and at a bad shooting angle.
Set a goal of cutting their shots on goal from 20 to 15, or by at least a 25% reduction a game. The fewer shots on goal often result in fewer goals scored against your Team.
This should help your goaltender make the initial save. Block as many shots from the slot and points as possible and clear any rebounds out of your zone or into the corner.
Backcheckers must skate back deep into your defensive zone and be ready to pick up any loose pucks or rebounds and start an offensive rush up the ice and out of your end zone quickly.
For a lower-seeded team playing a top scoring team, you can use a 1-man forechecking system, but some coaches may want to send 2 or even 3 men in deep to forecheck the opposition’s puck carrier. By doing this, it reduces the puck carrier’s time to pass the puck and their space to carry it out of the zone and it will upset their planned clearing/breakout play causing many turnovers.
The choice is yours and it’s usually based on the size of the ice surface you are playing on. On narrow ice surfaces, 2-3 men in deep, on wider ice surfaces, 1 man in deep often works best. Also the skating and checking ability of your forecheckers will also have a bearing on which strategy you use.
Trial and error in the latter part of the season is one way to find out if a higher-seeded team can be thrown off their game by aggressive in your face forechecking, or if a more passive defensive tactic of covering their two wingers is best used against a top team.
In the 1-2-2 neutral zone trap forechecking system, your closest forward to their puck carrier must aggressively attack/check him trying to separate him from the puck, creating a loose puck. The 2 other forwards peel off initially to cover both wingers to prevent them from receiving a pass. Your 2 defencemen play their puck carrier.
The wingers must be covered all the way back to your goal line. If the winger does receive a pass, try to angle them towards the boards and a bad-shooting angle. If you can, try to get your stick on the puck and deflect any pass into the seats or netting, but prevent them from shooting on goal.
If the closest forechecker was successful in taking the puck carrier off the puck, the 2nd closest forechecker must be quick off the mark to retrieve the loose puck in the offensive zone, then try to create a 2 on 1 situation for a quality scoring opportunity, or take a shot on goal yourself.
Good backcheckers must cover their wings, but also watch the success or failure of their deepest forechecker while at the same time getting ready to go after any turnover or loose puck.
By playing this 1-2-2 system, it allows your 2 defencemen, to play their puck carrier outside your blue line and force the shooter to dump the puck into your defensive zone where it can be retrieved by your backchecking wingers. It’s not pretty, but it can be very effective.
By playing a disciplined defensive system, playing your position, and by not running all over the ice trying to catch their puck carrier, you will keep the games close by eliminating dangerous odd man rushes, reduce scoring chances and prevent quality shots on goal.
Forechecking, backchecking, positional play, short shifts, capitalizing on opponent’s errors like giveaways and controlling big rebounds can turn the game in your favor. And positive comments and a pat on the back from the coaching staff for all good offensive and defensive plays are the keys to building player confidence, team spirit and playoff competitiveness even against the 1st place team.
On the other hand, if you are a top team with lots of fast skaters, good checkers and scoring power, a 2 man forechecking system, or the 2-1-2 method, will generate many turnovers in the oppositions end creating many quality scoring opportunities.
Coaches must know their own team’s abilities and the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses. Then they must devise a sound game plan based on this information to help their team be competitive and get them to the next round of playoffs.
Remain flexible, and if one system/strategy is not working go to Plan “B”. Ensure your best pair of defencemen are out against the opposition’s top scoring line.
The head coach must make the final decision whether to play wide-open offensive hockey or the somewhat more conservative defensive hockey.
Coaches, forward this info on to your players for a long playoff run.
Players – to be competitive in the playoffs, you must concentrate on what to do away from the puck.
On offence, when your team has the puck, you must get into an open area to receive a pass or find a seam between two players like Brett Hull used to do to receive a pass then get a quick quality shot on goal.
On defence, when the opposition have the puck, you must find an open man in the neutral and defensive zone and cover him/her like a blanket so they cannot receive a pass. This will cut down the opposition’s shooting and scoring chances.
In your defensive zone, one Defenceman must cover the closest player to the net while his D partner fights for the puck in the corner. You must be within 2 feet of the open player, not 5 feet from him.
The Centre and weak-side winger must cover the slot area and point. Keep your head “on a swivel” to identify any open men or loose pucks. Use your long stick reach to intercept or deflect passes.
The puck-side winger is situated along the half boards and must be ready to help the D in the corner if necessary, or move quickly out to cover the point if the puck is passed back there.
In some systems the Centre helps the defenceman in the corner while the wings covers the slot area and puck side point. Again this is a coaching decision.
Play aggressively and with intensity every time you are on the ice during your 40-45 second shift. You must win the puck battles for the loose puck at both ends of the ice. Remember, the goal you prevent might be the one that wins the game for the opposition. Clear all rebounds out of harm’s way and your goals against will fall like a lead balloon and you’ll be in the game right to the very end.
Parents – playoff hockey games are much different than regular season games.
There is closer forechecking and backchecking; less space to carry the puck, more body checking/hitting if allowed and usually scoring goals are much harder to come by.
Your son or daughter’s role now is to prevent goals on every shift when the opposition has the puck and to try and score when your team has control of the puck.
In the Playoffs:
A successful shift is one in which no goals were scored against your child. An unsuccessful shift is one in which a goal was scored against your child. For a goal to be scored there had to be a defensive error made by someone. A fantastic shift is one in which your child’s line scored a playoff goal. Applaud all the good defensive plays that prevent goals, as this is Playoff Hockey.
Playoff hockey can be very stressful, emotional and exciting for all Youth Hockey parents. But please remember, it’s only a game where fun is the number one priority for the players. Try to relax and enjoy the game.
Good Luck to all teams, coaches and players in this year’s playoffs. For more playoff and hockey tips go to www.hockeymadeeasy.com.