One of the metaphors (similes? I didn’t do well in English class) I use regularly when talking about defense and pressure is the game “Monkey in the Middle”. I ask my team “who has played Monkey in the Middle?” Invariably, everyone’s hand goes up. Then I ask “when you are the monkey, where is the best place to stand in order to get the ball back?” Interestingly, players need to really think about that. There are really only three choices: in front of the thrower, somewhere in the middle or in front of the receiver. Eventually, players will answer “in front of the receiver”. Which, of course, is the correct answer.
So, now that I have my players thinking on that, I start a conversation about forechecking. Typically, in my “regular” forechecking system, the second man into the offensive zone‘s job is to get the puck (first man pressures the puck carrier, third man stays high in the slot). So, I ask again, “if you are the second man into the zone (the Monkey), where is the best place to stand in order to get the puck back?” Now that my players have answered the first set of questions, they will naturally answer “in front of the puck receiver”.
OK, questions have been easy so far, now they get tough, “and who is the puck receiver?” Conversation ensues on that one, the answer being (giving it away) “there are five possible puck receivers”. Lightbulbs go on. This is good! But…five? Not four? Someone will jump in at this point and say “the goalie is the fifth receiver?” Ah…let’s not count the goalie. The fifth “receiver” is actually a loose puck. In other words, the first man into the zone on the forecheck has been able to separate the puck from the puck carrier and it is loose.
Now, no one will ever want to be the second man into the zone because, technically, you have to cover five opposition players! Yikes!
Here I start into my second metaphor (definitely not a simile). I talk about the mongoose. Now, interesting thing about the mongoose, one of his favorite meals is cobra. You may wonder how the heck a mongoose would be able to a) not get bitten by a striking cobra and b) be able to catch the cobra by the neck in order to kill and eat it. Well, the mongoose has unbelievable “anticipation”. (Check this short video out.) He anticipates the cobra’s strikes and then anticipates where the cobra’s throat will be in order to take it down with a strike of its own. “This”, I tell my players, “is the type of anticipation you need in order to be a successful forechecker”. Players need to anticipate where the puck is “going to be” just as the mongoose anticipates where the cobra is going to be.
So, what makes a player be a good anticipator on the forecheck? Here are some keys: reading the body language of the puck carrier, reading the angle/speed/stick of the first forechecker, knowing where the possible outlet passes might be going, and “going to school” on previous forechecks and opposition breakouts (Do they like to go D to D behind the net?). A good forechecker anticipates, reads and reacts, and makes a decision quickly in order to retrieve the puck. Sometimes that forechecker just has a hunch where the puck is going and has to guess - often committing to the wrong receiver. That’s OK. It happens. But, the worst thing the second man into the zone can do is just be “in the area” and not covering any of the five receivers at all.
What anticipation really comes down to is “thinking two steps ahead”. There is a popular theory that the very top hockey players in the world will actually be anticipating three steps ahead - or more. They can see the game “unfolding” and will be in the “right place at the right time”. (Think Wayne Gretzky.)
How do we make our players “think” the game better and anticipate? Challenge them to think two steps ahead. Challenge them to go to where they think the puck is going. Challenge them to think about where they will pass the puck before they receive it. Challenge them to go to a spot where they can score if the puck comes to them instead of a spot where they can’t put the puck in the net. Challenge them to know where their teammates are on the ice. Challenge them to anticipate what their teammates are going to do with the puck and to read and react.
As coaches, we can’t just teach physical skills to our players, we need to teach thinking skills as well to develop the “whole” player.