The top teams are able to exit their defensive zone and enter/exit the neutral zone with speed and puck control. There are good reasons for their consistent and effective execution in these two zones. If you’re interested in improving your own play in these two zones there are some pitfalls you need to avoid. It is essential players understand that puck turnovers in these two zones determine the outcome of hockey games. Players must master their execution in these two zones to become a good offensive team; one that spends more time in the offensive zone than the other two zones of the rink. The extra effort required to play a 200 foot game will pay dividends.
The NZ is generally accepted to be the area between the top of the face off circles at both ends of the rink. The following is a list of the seven deadly sins that are common pitfalls to be avoided when exiting the defensive zone and entering the neutral zone:
- Forcing or rushing of the 1st pass
- Absence of D-partner support
- Forwards not coming back to the puck
- Absence of quality passing lanes
- Skill gaps
- Absent or faulty timing
- Not using the width & depth of the ice
- Forcing or Rushing the 1st Pass
To exit either of these zones under pressure of a fore-check the first player on the puck should have at least one, preferably two, quality passing lane options. The player with the puck should not rush or force the first pass under pressure because the success rate of the first pass is critical to the exit/entry of the zone. If there isn’t a passing lane/seam option and the player with the puck hasn’t got an opportunity to skate the puck out of the zone then he/she should not be afraid to slow the play down until players come back to the puck and provide passing lane support and structure to exit as a group. Never panic.
If you force or rush the first pass and a turnover occurs, the likely result leads to a scoring opportunity for your opponent. Consider the following factors that support effective and efficient DZ and NZ exit/entry play:
- use of the width and depth of the ice surface to set quality passing lanes/seams
- five players (even strength) in position to support the play
- there are at least two quality passing options (set lanes/seams)
- the timing of the exit or entry of the zone supports the play
- players have the technical hockey skills to execute
2. Absence of D-Partner Support
Defensemen who have played the game at a high level know the importance of partner support. As mentioned, top teams apply pressure on the puck in the defensive and neutral zones in an effort to force the first player on the puck to rush or force the first pass. Having D-partner support to run a reverse, set a hinge (passing lane option) or get open weak side is absolutely essential to zone exit/entry play.
There are coaches out there who position the weak side D in front of the net on all DZ puck recovery and exit plays. There are some coaches who want the second defensemen guarding the net/slot zone or middle ice under a pressure forecheck. I disagree with this thinking because puck recovery, control and exit of the zone is critical to playing less time in your own end of the rink. To move the puck and control the puck, you must have puck support for offensive and defensive reasons. You can have the first forward back into the defensive zone or neutral zone provide puck support in this area of the ice, it doesn’t have to be a defensemen.
A D-Partner positioned to support the exit/entry play has eyes up the ice while the strong side defensemen often, even with shoulder checks, benefits from eyes up ice knowing how the group is setting up to support movement of the puck. I support tactics that provide the best opportunity to recover the puck and exit the defensive zone even if it requires both D in the strong side corner to recover the puck and start the exit play. A forward can cover the net/slot zone as well as a defensemen. It makes good sense to have your D set up below goal line behind the net weak side if there is F-1 support in the net zone for coverage. Use your resources on the ice wisely to support the objective.
3. Forwards Not Coming Back to the Puck
This is a common problem even at the professional level. You see it far too often. Forwards gliding back into the defensive zone against an attack rush or in the neutral zone against a pressure forecheck. There is nothing more frustrating for a defensemen with the puck than to watch a forward who is above the puck looking at them, not moving their feet (gliding) with a defender directly behind them who can step in front of the forward to intercept a pass. The forward is not open and there is not a passing lane option.
Forwards should be coming back to the puck under the pressure of forecheck in the defensive and neutral zones for offensive and defensive puck support. You need structure to support puck movement in your zone play and defensive support should a puck turnover result in the exit/entry play.
4. Absence of Quality Passing Lanes
Teams that forecheck well know the importance of sticks in passing lanes and pressure on the puck. Good forechecking teams apply secondary pressure strong side above the puck and will mix up their weak side and middle ice coverages forechecking. It is essential the structure in place to support zone exit/entry provides clean passing lanes as much as possible. It is essential to use the space of the ice surface to set quality passing lanes. It is almost impossible to pass a puck to a moving player who is directly above the puck carrier. The setting of an angle to support the passing lane is very helpful to a good outcome. Indirect passes off the boards are under utilized and an effective way of moving the puck under pressure.
The use of Give and Go plays is very helpful to advancing the puck. The tactic is helpful to engage defensemen on the rush and execute two on one and three on two situations in space.
5. Skill GAPS
The art of passing (giving and receiving) the puck with precision (accuracy and speed) is something we need to get back to in our teaching and coaching. The ability to play fast with speed and puck control requires the ability to pass the puck and control the puck. Under pressure the ability to give and receive a pass properly is absolutely essential to effective zone exit and entry play. Touch passing, indirect passing and passing the puck with speed and accuracy must be taught and coached with emphasis on correct fundamentals. The ability to execute indirect passes and chips into space is very helpful under pressure of a strong forecheck in tight space.
6. Absent or Faulty Timing
Knowing where to be on the ice surface and when to be there is part of the structured puck support required to advance and defend the puck. Structured puck support is necessary to advance the puck in all three zones of the rink. It is also necessary to provide defensive puck support in all three zones of the rink.
Timing in the execution of passes is essential in order to exit/enter a zone with speed. Under pressure of forecheck the forwards must time the setting of passing lane (driving seams and lanes) options to support the puck. Only in the situation of a player Posting Up in the zone should a player be stationary. The player Posting Up is used to distribute the puck to a player accelerating to top speed. Timing of puck and player movement is essential in your execution. A passing lane may be open for a second or two so the timing of player and puck movement is critical.
7. Not Using the Width & Depth of the Ice Surface
Too often we see exit/zone play failures related to a rushing or forcing of the puck strong side under pressure. Teams with a high percentage of exit/enter zone success don’t panic. These teams don’t force or rush the puck first pass or in subsequent pass situations and have a low puck turnover or give away rate. Using the width and depth of the ice surface is essential to setting quality passing lanes and to create time and space offensively which is important to zone exit/entry success. Using the width and depth of the ice surface is also essential to provide space to move the puck under pressure when there aren’t passing lane options and you want to move the puck to an area for puck recovery/exit with support.
It’s hard work to play a fast high tempo game for sixty minutes let alone a full season. Playing a fast high tempo game is essential for young players to develop their technical hockey skills and their tactical hockey skills (individual and group). Avoid the pitfalls shared today and start to emphasize good work habits with players in these critical areas of the ice surface. The NZ shouldn’t look like a Ping Pong Match. Entering and exiting the NZ with puck support and speed improves your attack rush and ability to set up in the offensive zone.
With the right practice in game like conditions; 5 players supporting the puck properly strong side or using the full width and depth of the ice, should be able to exit the defensive zone or enter the neutral zone under the best pressure of a 3 player aggressive forecheck consistently. Too many teams spend too much time chasing their opponent around in the DZ. These teams need to learn how to recover the puck and exit their zone. It’s doable but a team’s work rate must be high and they must outnumber on the puck off pressure triggers and use their resources effectively. Review and reinforce the right habits with players to aid in their development.