Forechecking is the process of pressuring the other team when they have the puck in their own end or in the neutral zone, with the goal of stealing the puck, causing a turnover, or slowing a fast breakout. Good times for forechecking occur when your team loses possession of the puck in the attacking zone or as part of a dump-and-chase strategy in which your team sends the puck into the corner and then sets up to win it back. A successful forecheck can instantly turn defense into offense and create shooting opportunities, as well.
Good forechecking requires a systematic approach that usually involves one to three players applying pressure in the attacking zone. Poorly organized forechecking allows the team with the puck to simply pass through the pressure, which suddenly puts opposing players behind the puck and out of the play. (This is an opportunity for backchecking, which we’ll discuss in a later post.) Then the offense has an advantage going forward.
When a single forward is forechecking, the main goal is to disrupt the flow of the breakout. If a turnover is created, that’s icing on the cake, but the first priority is to harry the puck-handler, perhaps causing them to pass back or turn back toward their own net. The forward who is forechecking doesn’t simply charge in willy-nilly, because that might result in over-skating the puck and allowing the player breaking out the puck to move up the ice unimpeded. Instead, the forechecker tries to play the angles to intercept the puck-handler along the boards and stop them in their tracks. If there’s an opportunity for a body check or poke check, all the better, but they are not necessary.
Multiple-player forechecking is a team effort, in which usually one player attacks the puck-handler in the corner or along the boards, while the other two forwards block possible passing lanes and prepare to either intercept an errant pass or get into position to receive a pass from a teammate in the event of a turnover. Meanwhile, the forechecking defenders drop back to be ready for a rush, should the breakout beat the forecheck.
There are several ways that the five players on the ice can work together as a forechecking unit, and these systems are usually described with numbers that indicate the formation, such as 1-2-2 or 2-1-2. Here are brief descriptions of the most commonly used systems.
1-4: The least aggressive of the systems, the 1-4 employs a single forward pressuring the puck, while the other two forwards and the defensemen hang back, ready to defend. The chances of a single player causing a turnover in the other team’s end are slim, but the forechecking player can make a nuisance of himself to slow down the offense, while the four players hanging back can make it difficult for the offense to mount an attack.
1-2-2: The most common forechecking system, the 1-2-2 again features a single player pressuring the puck, but the other two forwards are now playing supporting roles in the attacking zone. These two forwards hang back slightly and try to prevent breakout passes or to jump on the loose puck, and they can help along the boards if the puck gets beyond the main forechecker. The defensemen hang farther back, ready for the play to come to them.
2-1-2: A more aggressive system, the 2-1-2 sends two forwards deep, while the third forward hangs back. Should a turnover occur or the puck squirts out of the pack, the third forward can jump into the play, but they’re also ready to defend, should the opponents break out of the forecheck. This is an aggressive system that a team might use when down a goal or when they believe that the personnel on the ice gives them an advantage.
We will discuss the specifics of each system—and drills to practice them—in later blog posts.
It’s important to remember that there’s a certain amount of gambling involved in forechecking, and the forechecking team should constantly assess the risk-to-reward ratio of sending players into the opponents’ zone. The more aggressive the forecheck, the better the chances of creating a turnover that leads to a goal-scoring opportunity, but the chances of multiple players being caught behind the play are greater, as well. A failed aggressive forecheck can result in an odd-man rush going the other way. So a good forechecking team is both thinking hard and working hard to make the most out of each opportunity to pressure the puck in the opponents’ zone.