The breakaway is one of the more thrilling moments in hockey, as the frenetic team game gets boiled down momentarily to a one-on-one duel between an attacking player and a goalkeeper. For both players, there is little time to think or plan, so they must fall back on training and instinct: It’s a battle of wits, as each is trying to anticipate what the other is going to do.
According to David A. Jensen—a former NHL player and Olympian who owns and operates DAJ Hockey, New England’s premier hockey skills training company—the ability to score on a breakaway is different from other skills because you never know when you’re going to have the opportunity in any given game, and it’s over in just a few seconds. But good technique and strategy can tip the odds in favor of the attacker. Here are Jensen’s five keys to putting the puck in the back of the net.
1. Maintain Your Skating Speed . . . at First
Once you’ve got the puck beyond the defense—whether you’ve poked it away from an opposing player or received an outlet pass—your first job is to ensure that you’re not caught from behind, so keep skating hard. This also puts pressure on the goalie to quickly decide on a strategy. A well-coached keeper will usually come out at first, to cut down the angle, and then begin moving back toward the goal to keep from being deked. His main task is to cover as much of the goal as he can throughout the process.
But Jensen argues that changing your speed as you get closer to the goalie can throw off his timing and create opportunities. If the goalie retreats too quickly, he will reveal more of the goal for you to shoot at. So it sometimes pays to slow up a bit if you see the keeper retreating. If you’ve slowed but the goalie continues to get deeper, you can pick your spot and shoot. Conversely, a quick burst of speed right at the end might be enough to get the goalie back on his heels, making him easier to deke.
2. Keep Your Head Up
It is vital that you read the goalie’s position and movement, Jensen says, and you can’t do that if you’re looking at the puck. Keep your head up! You must be able to see what the goalie is doing, if any teammates are charging in with you, or if there’s a defender you need to deal with. You have only seconds to decide what you’re going to do, so you need to be aware of what’s going on around you.
3. Read the Goalie
Read the goalie’s position to see if he’s perhaps taken a slightly wrong angle, leaving part of the goal exposed. If you can see a good chunk of net not covered, take the shot immediately, Jensen advises. “Sometimes, though, a goalie will try to bait you into shooting by intentionally leaving an opening,” he says, so your shot needs to be fast and accurate. High-level players will research opposing goalies to learn their tendencies, which gives the attacking player an advantage.
4. Decide Whether to Shoot or Deke
Once you’ve read the goalie’s position, you have two main options—shoot or deke—although there are countless variations on each. Jensen advises that if you can see a good piece of net when you’re 15 or 20 feet out from goal, you should take the shot. This scenario recalls the folk wisdom, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”—if you don’t take that shot, you might not get another good look at the goal, and then end up with nothing. Jensen recommends a wrist shot or a snap shot, as they afford better accuracy, and you can get the shot off quickly.
If you don’t have a good shot, keep skating until you’re 5 to 10 feet out, and make your move. The purpose of deking is to get the goalie to move to one side or the other, which will create opportunities to beat him to either side or through the “five hole” between his legs. However, if you deke when you’re too far away, the keeper can easily move with you and keep cutting down the angle. If you deke when you’re too close, you can expose the puck to a poke check or simply run out of room.
5. The Breakaway Score: It’s All About Deception
The main key to scoring success on a breakaway, Jensen says, is making the goalie think you’re doing one thing, but then doing something else. As a player, his strategy was to make the goalie think he was shooting to one side, but then he’d go the other way. “It takes practice,” he says, “but you can set your body to look like you’re going high glove side and then put the puck high stick side.” If you have the time and space, you can also fake the shot to see if it moves the keeper and opens up more net to aim for.
When you’re setting up to deke, you want to pull the goalie across his line, and to do this, you have to really sell the move. A short, sharp deke that might beat a player at mid-ice isn’t going to move the keeper enough to open things up. You have to really convince the goalie that you’re going to one side or the other. For instance, if you are a left-handed shooter approaching from the left side of the goal, you want to move the puck hard to the right across the goal, as if you’re going to the back hand, and then pull it back to the left for the forehand shot.
This is a lot of information to help you make a play that is over within seconds. And because most breakaways don’t result in a goal, there is more pressure on the goalie to make the stop than there is on the shooter to score, but that’s not what you’ll be thinking about as you’re bearing down on the net. Jensen recommends practicing one-on-ones with a keeper to hone your moves, which will make them second nature when you’re in on goal during a game. Shootouts in the NHL also offer opportunities to study how the game’s best penalty takers do things. Call up videos of T.J. Oshie and Patrick Kane, for instance, and watch how they do it. And when your chance finally comes, all this preparation will help increase your chances of putting the puck in the net.