Two minutes left in the game. Your team is down one goal. All of a sudden you have to start your action plan for handling the bench to maximize your team’s chances to score a goal and tie the game. As a 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 have to have a plan for those last two minutes.
There are two principals that I start with. 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 pull the goalie. 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 my mind.
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 your top players tired.
So let’s talk through the last two minutes of a one goal deficit game. At a whistle around the 2:30 mark I will get my goalies attention and remind him or her that they will be getting pulled for an extra attacker and I tell them exactly where I will be standing on the bench when I call them so they know where to look for me. I also remind my players that no one takes extra-long shifts. Regular shifts and good changes are crucial to the team’s success in this situation.
The two minute mark is without question the start of using only 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 2 minutes with them on the ice.
At this point I stop changing position for position on forward and I 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 to recharge batteries and go 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 timing of calling the goalie can be a little tricky. I don’t worry so much about where the puck is on the ice but what I look for is to have clear possession and 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 ten feet from the bench. Referees are always looking to whistle the play down for a quick change.
I have one specific instruction for the 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 doing this important task at this stage of the game. I choose someone big and strong, and 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.
Here is 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 say to them, “skate normally to the faceoff circle, stand directly on the faceoff dot, look the referee in the eye and call a timeout”. Once that happens, my top unit will have gained an extra 20 to 30 second of rest sitting on the bench. I have them right in front of me and now I can give them any instructions they need to have going 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 and remind them they have to not get caught up in watching the game and 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 coach, mentally rehearsing and noting what 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 in early season games even when you are down 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.