Preserving the One Goal Lead
I wrote a post a couple weeks ago entitled “Do You Have a Plan for the Last Two Minutes of the Game?” It dealt with how to run a bench when your team is down a goal in the last two minutes of a hockey game. The post talked about such things as player usage and calling a timeout. But, it didn’t speak to being up a goal with two minutes to go in the game. If fact, an old friend of mine commented that it would be good to have that perspective as well. So, here it is.
I have never played rugby before but I imagine that when you finally get the ball over the goal line and touch it to the ground it is a huge relief. I believe that feeling of relief comes in two situations in hockey. One, when the puck gets out of your zone over the blue line and two, when the puck gets over the center red line. Here is my rationale:
Once the puck get over the defensive zone blue line then the opposing team can’t score again until everyone clears the zone and regroups coming back. You hear coaches yell “Get the puck out!” all of the time. This is what they are referring to - getting the puck out of the zone. It is crucial to a team’s defensive success to be able to do this and, as an aside, your wingers HAVE to be able to get the puck out when they get it on the half boards from the defencemen. If a defenceman is pinching, the puck has to get by them and over the blue line.
Once the puck gets over the red line, your team can gain another 90 to 100 feet of ice by simply dumping into the zone. This forces the other team to come 200 feet to score - which is a long way!
So, these are two very important pieces of ice to gain - more so when you are in the last minutes with a small lead.
Here are some things that I remind players before they go out in the last few minutes, in the lead, of a one goal game:
1) “Get it out! Get it in! Take the defensive side!” Simply, gain the lines and stay between their players and our net.
2) “Don’t shoot at the empty net until you are over the red line.” There is nothing worse than an icing call because a player got a little cocky and selfish and fired down the ice for a goal. BUT, if we HAVE to ice the puck, might as well try to hit the empty net.
3) “Block every shot!” Self-explanatory.
4) “Soft chips!” By this I mean my players have to be able to chip the puck out of our zone without icing the puck. Often we will take some time in practice late in the season getting the puck out from anywhere between the defensive zone faceoff dot and the top of the circle.
5) “Short shifts!” This doesn’t always happen and unlike trying to score a goal in the last two minutes, I am more comfortable having my best defensive players on the ice tired than I would with my best offensive players trying to score tired.
6) “Don’t get caught watching the game! Stay alert and make good changes!” The bench has to be alert. I would think there are more bad changes and Too Many Men on the ice penalties, for both sides, in these situations.
7) “Make strong plays!” Players have to be confident in this situation and make sure everything they do on the ice is with full strength. All your players need to have what I call the “Hit the Ball to Me” mentality.
Some things I do as a coach in the last two minutes with a one goal lead:
1) Never call a timeout that will enable the other team to rest their best offensive players. Let them waste their timeout of they still have one.
2) Unlike my strategy when we are down a goal, I have everyone chance for their positions. This will help with any confusion in our defensive zone coverage.
3) With most of my teams, I like to play a strict man on man coverage system through the season (another conversation but it teaches better defensive zone skills). Unfortunately, when the other team has their goalie out, they have one more player than we do. So, my defensive zone coverage system when they have pulled their goalie goes to a static box penalty kill with the fifth player playing in the middle of the box (Five on a Die). However, any zone coverage system pretty much works in this situation. My big caution is that you don’t want to get any players caught behind their players on the boards. (”Take the defensive side!”)
4) If their defensive skills are good, make sure you have your best faceoff person on all faceoffs in the defensive zone. AND, if possible, get your second best faceoff person on the ice as well in case the first gets kicked out of the draw. Typically, this will mean that there are two centers on the ice and it might create confusion in the defensive zone coverage. Make sure one is designated as a winger.
5) When the puck gets over the center ice red line it HAS to be dumped in! Then, unlike my usual aggressive forechecking system, I have my teams go to a strict 1-2-2 forecheck and the wingers, who have sealed the boards, are backing out on the breakout so that we try to force the opposition to dump it in to our zone on the rush.
And sometimes, you just need to get a little luck and a good bounce.
Especially as we get closer to playoff time, it is important to dedicate some practice time to goalie out situations - both offensively and defensively. Remember, players will be able to adjust to stressful game situations much better if they have been in them before.