When the other team has control of the puck in your defensive zone, your first order of business as a defenseman is to stop them from getting a clean shot at goal. The more difficult you make it for the offense to pass or shoot, the less likely they are to score. This means that defenders must cover passing lanes and block direct access to the goal. Only after ensuring the safety of the goal should you focus on creating a turnover or pinning the puck against the boards.
Proper positioning is vital to this process. If a you rush at the puck willy-nilly, you give the offensive player with the puck an advantage because he can beat you with a good head fake or quick move. Plus, you’ll invariably leave undefended space behind you, which the other team can exploit. Here are three basic rules that can help defensemen maintain proper positioning, protect the goal, and force puck-handlers to make tough decisions and take low-percentage shots.
1. Stay Between Your Man and the Goal
This is sometimes called playing “on the defensive side” of the player or puck. It may seem obvious, but it’s an important consideration as you execute numbers 2 and 3 below. At all times, your body and/or your stick should prevent the puck-handler from skating in on goal or passing the puck to a teammate in the slot. If you are defending a player without the puck, your goal is to keep that player from getting to the ice in front of the goal unimpeded or receiving a pass in a position that provides a clear shooting lane to the goal. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation in which you’re trying to stop a play from behind your man—which often leads to bad mistakes or penalties. To maintain this defensive-side position, you’ll need to move as the player you’re covering moves.
For instance, if an offensive player has the puck along the boards at the goal line, it makes sense that the nearest defenseman would want to try to trap the puck on the boards. But the line the defenseman takes to the puck must continue to block the goal. If you stray out of position as you skate to the puck, you may find that the puck is no longer there when you arrive. If the player with the puck moves toward the blue line, for instance, you must slide in the same direction to maintain your defensive-side positioning.
2. Defend From the Middle Outward
The most dangerous part of the ice is the center of your defensive zone because the closer the shooter is to being directly in front of goal, the more net they have to shoot at. A goaltender has a much better chance of stopping shots that come in from sharp angles because the goalie can cover more of the net. Therefore, the defense as a whole should work to keep the puck out of the middle of the zone.
Picture the area defined by lines, on each side of the zone, from the blue line to the face-off spot and then to the near post. (See diagram below.) Your strategy should be to deflect play to the outside of these lines because your goal is under less imminent danger if the puck is along the boards. If an opposing player is rushing at you during a break, don’t get caught cheating to the outside trying to intercept the puck, because this will allow your man to cut in and take away your defensive-side positioning. Instead, just push an onrushing player to the outside, where they can do less damage, by cutting off their path to the middle.
3. Maintain the Gap Between Defenders
Most defensive schemes involve two defensemen down low and two wingers covering the points. But to protect the center of the ice, it is vital that these pairs don’t allow the gaps between them to widen so much that an opposing player can split them. Therefore, when the puck is not on your side of the ice and your partner goes to the boards to make a check, you must skate to the center to maintain the gap between you. Conversely, if you go into the corner after the puck, your partner will fill in behind you. This dynamic formation keeps the defensive unit compact, which is more difficult for the opponent to break down. A good offensive player will recognize when defenders are leaving too much space between them and will exploit the extra space to create scoring opportunities.
There’s lots more to learn about defending—different schemes, situational strategies, specific jobs for each player, and the like—but these fundamentals are always in play. Learning to stay on the defensive side, push the puck outside, and maintain proper spacing will give you a solid foundation and make you tough to beat in your own zone.