To be a great forechecker you must be fast and agile.
Skating Speed, Skating Mobility, and Just Plain Hustle
Effective forechecking begins with skating speed. Skating speed creates havoc with the breakout patterns of the opponent. Utilizing skating speed means that the opponent will always feel the pressure inherent in the lack of time this skill creates. If you have a fast team or a fast line of forwards, it is usually wise to have them forecheck aggressively whenever possible. The mobility element of skating cannot be overemphasized. Being able to change direction rapidly by either turning sharply or stopping and starting are keys to effective forechecking.
What needs to be said about hustle? It’s obvious that the pure desire to get the puck back by simply working hard is at least as important as any fancy skating techniques. I mention this only because I’ve sometimes found myself so engrossed in the systems and strategies of the game that I’ve forgotten about what has always been the most important key to success—hard work!
If your players aren’t blessed with skating speed and agility, it will be more difficult to forecheck aggressively. More conservative forechecking patterns such as trapping patterns are usually better options for those types of players. During a few seasons at Bellows Free Academy, we used three units of five players. We had two units that were very mobile, and they forechecked aggressively. We had a third unit that was far less mobile, and their primary forechecking pattern was very similar to the trap that is so popular in modern hockey.
The ideal scenario is to have all your lines forecheck both aggressively and conservatively, depending on the situation. For example, after the puck has been dumped in for the purpose of a change, it makes no sense for two forwards to race out and attack aggressively when the opponent has full control of the puck. When an opposing defenseman is stopped behind the net with the puck, it makes no sense to chase him out, letting him use the net as a screen to skate the puck out of the zone. This is a time when a more modest forechecking pattern should be used. Players should also be able to recognize when a quality dump-in has taken place and there is a chance to forecheck aggressively. To forecheck this way, players have to anticipate a quality dump-in and a chance to forecheck. It is easy to back off into a conservative pattern if the play is misread; however, it is impossible to forecheck aggressively with any effect if players aren’t anticipating such an opportunity and skating accordingly. Without anticipation, the opportunity to employ high-pressure forechecking tactics is lost.
Steering and Angling
Steering and angling combine to form the fundamental tactical skill associated with good forechecking, whether the forechecking pattern is highly aggressive or more controlled in nature. Steering refers to the initial positioning of the first forechecker. If, through positioning, this player can influence the opponent to move toward a specific area of the ice, he can then angle the puck carrier and use proper skating and stick position to continue in that direction while denying certain pass options to the puck carrier. The first forechecker’s linemates can then read the direction of the play, anticipate what is likely to happen next, and get in good position to take advantage of subsequent events.
Steering is more obvious to the naked eye when a trap is being used. Let’s assume that the opponent is attempting to break out, beginning with a defenseman standing behind the net. Let’s further assume that the center swings behind the net with the intent of picking up the puck and coming up the wall with speed. If the first forechecker establishes position to the side of the net toward the intended swing, the opposing center will likely choose not to take the puck. The defenseman behind the net will have to start the breakout coming up the other side.
In an aggressive forechecking situation, the first forward forechecking has to use speed and skating agility to establish a favorable steering position. For example, if the intent is to forecheck hard 1-2-2 and keep the play on one side of the ice, the first forechecker will have to skate to an inside position (that is, toward the middle of the rink) as he chases the opposing defenseman. By establishing this position (steering), he creates an opportunity to angle the puck carrier farther in the intended direction.
Angling, the next phase of forechecking fundamentals, involves two principal elements: skating path and stick position. When a forechecker approaches the puck carrier from the side, skating along an elliptical path, the puck carrier has only one option: passing to reverse the flow of the play. And if the forechecker has his stick on the ice, to deny that pass, the puck carrier’s only option is to continue along the path being forced by the forechecker. If all of the elements of steering and angling are properly executed, the forechecker can continue to close in on the puck carrier and take him out of the play with a body check.
This is an excerpt from Coaching Hockey Successfully.