‘Gap control’ in hockey means maintaining an effective distance—or ‘gap’—between you and another player or players.
When a train in London’s Underground comes to a stop, the doors open and a recorded voice warns, “Mind the gap.” (There’s a small gap between the train and platform.) Hockey players—especially defensemen—should keep this phrase in mind, because proper “gap control” is vital to success.
There are several kinds of gap control, but the most basic example is a one-on-one that pits a rushing puck-carrier against a single defenseman. If it’s your job to thwart the rush, you must maintain an effective gap between yourself and the opponent. If you leave too much space between you, the puck-carrier can easily cut inside toward the goal and get off a good shot on net from the middle of the ice. If you’re too tight on the opponent, you run the risk of being outmuscled or beaten by a quick burst of speed. The key is knowing how big or small a gap to maintain, and this depends on where you are on the ice.
For Good Gap Control on Defense, Move Your Feet
As with many defensive hockey strategies, effective gap control begins with good skating. You must be able to accelerate backward quickly to match the speed of the rushing opponent. (You never want to turn your back on the puck-carrier, because that gives them an advantage.) A defenseman may be standing at the point when the rush begins, meaning they must go from flat-footed to top speed as quickly as possible. Practice accelerating backward using crossovers—something we will discuss in a later post—maintaining a good hockey stance and solid balance.
Chances are that the rusher isn’t going to skate in a straight line, but instead will try to get you leaning one way so they can go the other. A good rule of thumb is to always skate straight back or angled toward your own goal. You want to push the puck-carrier to the outside, away from danger, as much as possible. If you angle toward the boards, you’re exposing the middle of the ice to attack—and protecting the middle is one of the three fundamentals to playing defense in your own zone.
How (and When) to Close the Gap in Hockey
The gap between hockey players is usually measured in stick-lengths. For instance, a ‘one-stick’ gap means you can touch your opponent’s chest with your stick. A ‘two-stick’ gap is twice that distance, and so on. A ‘zero gap’ means there is no space between you, and you’re getting your body on your opponent’s body.
Youth hockey players often maintain too large a gap because they’re so afraid of getting beaten, but the truth is that a large gap allows the puck-carrier more control, because it gives them more options. As a defender, you want to dictate the action, forcing the offensive player to make a decision—especially as you get closer to your defensive zone. Some coaches teach a basic three-two-one system of gap control, meaning that you maintain a three-stick gap at the opponent’s blue line, a two-stick gap at the red line, and a one-stick gap at your blue line. Other coaches argue for a one-stick gap at center ice. But the distance should also depend on how much help you have: If you know another defender has your back, you can close the gap on the puck-carrier sooner to try to disrupt the rush.
Keep your eyes on the player, not the puck! In our post on how to avoid getting deked, David A. Jensen—a former Olympian and NHL player who now owns and operates DAJ Hockey, New England’s premier hockey skills training company—suggests focusing on your opponent’s chest, which makes you less likely to fall for a fake. Keep your stick in front of you so you can poke-check and block passing lanes. Give yourself every chance to disrupt the rushing player before they get close to your defensive zone.
Once the puck-carrier makes a move to one side or the other, it’s time to close the gap to zero—either by standing the opposing player up, knocking them off the puck, or pushing them to the outside, away from your net. This is why maintaining a one-stick gap near your zone is so important: If you have maintained too large a gap, making contact is more difficult.
Practice the skills that go into good gap control, and do lots of repetitions of one-on-one drills. Exercising good gap control at game time will make you much tougher to beat, which means you’ll surrender fewer goals on the break.