How and when to eliminate space against the rush as a defenceman


Brett Lee

Sharing my passion for hockey through video and analytics. Vancouver native working in Toronto.

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How aggressively should a defender close out their gap? The answer is, it depends.

Defending against speed on the rush has never been more important as a defenceman. Players are becoming faster, higher-skilled, and smarter when attacking on the rush, and defenders must continue evolving to keep up.

A fundamental rule that is engrained in every defender is to play a tight gap between themselves and the puck carrier in a one-on-one situation. Ideally, two stick lengths away. We also know from empirical evidence found by The Coaches Site contributor Ryan Stimson that the distance between the defender and the puck carrier has a positive correlation with the likelihood of a controlled break-in.

But how aggressively should a defender close out their gap? Are there optimal times to play a looser gap? How can defenders eliminate the most amount of options for an opposing player on the rush?

Defencemen should be concerned with two things when defending the rush: identifying their opponent’s options and then using the resources of the situation to eliminate as many as possible. How one takes up space is important. In this article are five points of focus for young defencemen looking to effectively take up space against the rush.

1. Identify the developing play

Defencemen are exposed to a unique view of the game as a majority of their time is spent watching the play unfold in front of them. This position allows an aware defenceman to identify not only where danger lurks on the rush but also where their support lies from backchecking teammates. Each rush is unique and has its own set of variables that impact how to most effectively defend the attack. The information in front of the defender must be digested before committing to an action.

Initial information for defencemen to look for are:

  • Does the puck carrier have speed or are they starting from a standstill?
  • Are they on their strong or off-wing?
  • What support do they have and what are their passing options?
  • What area can they skate into (are they close to the boards or in open ice)?
  • Is their man about to receive a pass?

By assessing these elements, defencemen are equipped with the knowledge of the different threats that attackers are capable of. But before defenders decide whether or not to step up early and meet the attacker before the defensive blue line, one more element must be assessed.

2. Read the backchecking pressure

A key contributor to successfully defending against the rush, it has been proven that strong backchecking pressure is a correlating factor in preventing controlled break-ins. A core concept of defence is eliminating options for the puck carrier and backchecking is one of the most effective ways to do so. Backchecking teammates can take away passing options for the puck carrier or even force the puck carrier into lower-danger areas of the ice.

This makes the job of the defencemen exponentially easier as they have to worry about far fewer threats. Paying attention to the direction of the backchecking pressure is paramount as the defender can then identify what options the attacking player has left.

For example, if there is a forward supporting in the neutral zone taking away the middle of the ice, the strong side defender could stand up at the red line to aggressively attempt to take away a pass. Alternatively, if there is a teammate pressuring along the dot lane from the inside, the puck side defender could work in tandem and continue to force the puck carrier towards the boards and away from the middle of the ice. If the backcheck pressure is late, then the defender may have to respect the options of the puck carrier and play a looser gap.

In the above video, MIN46 sees that his teammate MIN36 is taking away the middle of the ice and the puck carrier, VAN43. Upon reading the attacking routes and that MIN36 is providing back pressure through the middle, MIN46 takes away VAN53 streaking down the right-wing.

3. Skating habits

One tactic that forwards use to win one-on-one battles against defenders is to take advantage of vulnerable feet. They attempt to manipulate the defender’s skates by threatening to attack in one direction and once the defenceman commits to the directional change, the forward quickly goes back and attacks in the opposite direction. The trigger of information that they are looking for is the crossing over of the defender’s feet or defender’s toes positioned perpendicular to the direction of play.

How aggressively should a defender close out their gap? The answer is, it depends . . .



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