Hockey Coaches Aren’t Spending Enough Time on the Neutral Zone


It’s important for a player’s development to incorporate tactics during games that support playing with speed and physicality in all three zones. For a player to improve offensive skills they must have the opportunity to play with the puck more than without the puck.

And the most fun place to play is the offensive zone. So how do we get there?

Neutral Zone Play is Often Overlooked

One of the best things we can do to support the development of a player’s offensive skills is to teach them how to pressure up and check properly in one on one situations and as a member of a group in puck battle situations and when forechecking. The start of a good offensive play is a good defensive play. Teams that play fast support the puck in all three zones to win the puck possession and control game. Teams forecheck in the offensive zone with structure and tactical thought but there seems to be an absence of this tactical thought and structural play in the neutral zone.

Neutral zone play is often overlooked but it’s one of the key areas of the ice surface to defend. Forced puck turnovers in the neutral zone help hockey players create offence on the counter attack. Many teams do not deploy a forechecking group tactic in the neutral zone to force puck turnovers. Denying the opponent the ability to enter the neutral zone and exit the neutral zone with speed and puck control is a strategic advantage for any team.

Neutral Zone Forecheck

I am not a fan of systems or set plays. I equate a five player unit supporting the puck defensively in the neutral zone as a group tactic that requires thoughtful design and execution.

A neutral zone forecheck to support the puck defensively as a group based on strategy and tactical play for me is part of hockey fundamentals. We’ve lost possession of the puck and we want to get it back by working as a group to regain possession and control.

Whatever tactical structure you deploy to forecheck in the neutral zone to corral the opponent into an area to create a puck turnover should be based on the situation. Whether as a group you play a one-two-two or a two-one-two, alternating or another structure it should be based on situational hockey. What matters is the players know they have to work together as a group to regain puck possession and control and create scoring opportunities off the counter attack game. The players should also know when to use the best structure for the situation.

How do they know this? That’s your job, coach.

A neutral zone forecheck should be run off every face-off loss situation and any loss of puck possession in the neutral zone. A basic structure to pressure the puck in the neutral zone has the following elements:

  1. F-1 pursuit of the puck
  2. F-2 preventing a weak side exit option
  3. F-3 provides secondary support puck side or middle ice for P1
  4. D1, D2 GAP control to support the forechecking forwards

Neutral Zone Play Skills & Tactics

  1. Proper Angling
  2. Effective Use of Body & Stick
  3. Puck Separation (ability to separate a player from the puck without the need for a collision)
  4. Forechecking Structure
  5. Counter Attack off Puck Recovery

Performance Measurement

  1. Amount of forced turnovers
  2. Amount of neutral zone counter attack scoring chances off forced turnovers

Players get better offensively as individuals and as a team when they play with the puck more than without the puck. When your players play more in the offensive zone than the defensive zone you are likely winning more hockey games than you’re losing and your players are happy they’re playing with the puck and being chased rather than doing the chasing.

Focus on defending the neutral zone with speed and physicality and win the puck possession and control game.

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Mike Coldham

Mike has over 25 years of coaching experience as a Technical Mentor Coach of people in Business and Sports. Now retired after 35 years of public service, Mike created the TLPF website to support the development of competitive minor hockey players. Mike works with competitive hockey players to help them learn how to play faster which requires tactical knowledge and skills.

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