Closing the Gap
There are two catch phrases I remember from playing hockey with the Varsity Blues at the University Toronto. The first is what was said in the dressing room with a lead in a tight game going into the third period: “Get the puck out! Get the puck in! Take the defensive side!” Gaining the blue lines and playing good defense was critical to playing with a lead and securing a win.
The second, a catch all phrase we used to get us going: “Skate! Skate! Skate! Hit! Hit! Hit!”
Now, I have modified this second one a little for non-contact. Instead of hit, I use “Battle” or “Pressure”. All three words though promote pressuring the opposition. If a team can do these two things well in a game all of the time they will be successful: skate full speed and pressure the puck carrier.
It’s crucial then for players to “close the gap” if they are to pressure the puck well. There are two areas where closing the gap is important. The first is on the rush. Defencemen, in even man rushes, need to be challenging the offence early. When my teams practice one on one’s down the ice, I insist the defencemen close the gap and make contact with the puck carrier at the blue line. For most defencemen this is truly a scary proposition as they have a real fear of being beaten early and giving up a partial breakaway. But this is a skill that defencemen need to have to improve and play at the next level. Another essential part to good gap control is to have defencemen follow the play up the ice on offence to maintain a good gap in the event of a quick turnover. Defencemen should never be much more than ½ a zone away from the play (distance from the blue line to the red line) and less distance can even be better.
Here are two drills from my book Essential Hockey Training that I use regularly to improve gap control.
The other situation where gap control is critical is in the defensive zone on coverage. It’s one thing to be on the defensive side but giving the offense time and space to play in the zone is counterproductive. Everyone playing in the defensive zone must pressure and close gaps immediately from the net out.
Here is a four part drill that can be run in two ends of the ice that addresses good gap control in the defensive zone.
Each of these drills can be used literally every practice. They challenge players, they have a competitive aspect to them and they simulate game situations. Keep your players skating fast and pressuring the puck, and they will be more successful.