The area right in front of goalkeeper is some of the most contested real estate on an ice rink because this is where offensive players present the most danger. In the NHL, for instance, about half of all goals are scored from within 20 feet of the net, and that percentage probably goes up considerably in lower leagues and youth hockey. To gain an advantage, both teams want to control that space, which leads to frequent one-on-one battles. For a defenseman, “protecting the house” by stopping opposing forwards from getting shots, setting up screens, or tipping pucks right in front of the goalie is Job Number One.
Here are ten tips for controlling the ice in front of the net, which limits the number of good scoring chances your goalie must face.
1. Support Your Fellow Defenseman
There are usually two defensemen on the ice, which means that each is responsible for one side of the ice in the defensive zone. If you’re on the weak-side, you move toward the center to protect the ice in front of goal. When the puck switches to your side of the ice, you move toward the puck to challenge, while the other defenseman slides into the space in front of goal. It is vital that the defense is aware of the space in front of the net at all times. Otherwise, the attacking team could get a close shot or a one-on-one with the keeper.
2. Don’t Get Sucked out of Position
When a defenseman has taken up a position in front of the goal, and there’s a battle for the puck nearby along the boards or behind the net, it can be tempting to help one’s teammates by joining the battle. This can be disastrous, however, for if the puck makes its way out of the scrum, that dangerous area in front of goal is unattended, offering an attacking player an uncontested shot on goal. When it’s your responsibility to “protect the house,” you must demonstrate good discipline by staying home.
3. Keep Your Head on a Swivel
When you’re guarding the front of the goal, make sure you know where the puck is. If it’s behind the net, you need to be ready to deal with a player trying to score a wrap-around. If the puck is at the point, you need to clear the goalie’s sight lines, prevent a tip-in, or try to block the shot. Stay alert and aware of the situation.
4. Don’t Get Fixated on One Opponent
If an opposing player tries to set up in front of the net, it’s your responsibility to deny them a scoring chance. But that player isn’t your only responsibility. Should another player skate toward the goal with the puck, you need to defend as if you were facing a two-on-one. Just because you’ve got “your” player covered doesn’t mean another attacking player is someone else’s responsibility. Your job is to stop or break up all scoring opportunities from right in front of goal.
5. Keep Your Feet Moving
Don’t allow yourself to get too settled into position, because you need to be able to react quickly to other threats or to jump on a loose puck or a rebound. If you’re too flat-footed or back on your heels, you won’t be able to make those instantaneous changes in direction and speed you’ll need to cover the zone.
6. Box Out the Opponent
The best way to keep an attacking forward from setting up shop in front of your net is to not allow them into the area in the first place. Use your body to block their path to the center of the ice or to redirect them away from goal. Just make sure to keep #4 above in mind at all times: While you’re boxing out one player, you don’t want another to sneak in behind you.
7. Stay Net-Side
When you’re battling an opposing forward in front of goal, keep your body between the player and the net. This helps you maintain leverage, forcing them away from goal and out of your goalkeeper’s way, and it puts you in a better position to jump on any rebounds to get the puck out of the danger zone. Although there are defensive schemes in which you may “front” the opposing player—to help block shots from the point, for instance—most of the time, you’ll want to stay net-side.
8. Win the Stick Battle
About 10 percent of all goals scored in the NHL are tipped shots, so it’s important that you try to tie up the stick of an opposing player in front of your goalie. This is especially important when the puck is at the point, where an opposing defenseman may take a slap shot. If you’re occupying the stick of the player in front of goal, they are less likely to tip the incoming shot.
9. Help Your Goalie See
One of the main jobs of the attacking player in front of goal is to screen the goalkeeper. As the defender in front of goal, you need to try to keep the attacker from getting between the puck and the net, using your body to block or steer them away. It’s also important that, in the process, you don’t accidentally block the goalie’s sight lines.
10. Be Ready to Clear a Rebound
Once a shot does come in, it’s your job to get to the puck before an attacker does. “Safety first,” should be your mantra, so clear the puck to the side as quickly as possible or communicate with your goalie to cover up the puck.
Practice With One-on-One Drills
The only way to master the various skills necessary to win battles in front of goal is practice. One-on-one drills will help you learn how to use body position, leverage, and stick pressure to keep opposing players off-balance and out of position.
Because hockey is such a dynamic game in which the puck and all the players on the ice are constantly moving, a defenseman can’t simply park themselves in front of the goal and consider the job done, but instead must constantly read the play, assess where the danger is coming from, and then react accordingly. The defender has important choices to make about what position to take up, where to focus attention, and how to maintain leverage over an opposing player.
By effectively defending the ice in front of your net, you can force the other team into low-percentage scoring changes, which puts your team in a better position to win.