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Traffic School

by Aaron Lopez / Colorado Avalanche
Among the most simple, yet sometimes overlooked aspects in the game of hockey is the concept of getting traffic in front of the net. The notion of placing a body just outside the crease is easy, but proper execution takes a willingness to go into tough areas and sacrifice one’s body in order to screen the goaltender or get a stick on the puck.

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According to Avalanche forward Chris Stewart - who has cut his teeth by making himself a pain for opposing defenders and goaltenders - it’s not exactly rocket science once you get there. If a goalie can’t see the puck, it greatly decreases his chances of stopping it.

“Honestly, 80 percent of the goals in the NHL come from having a guy in front of the net,” said Stewart. “The goalie can’t stop what he can’t see.  That’s been a lot of my success this year and a lot of the team’s success. We’ve had two or three guys net front hounding away. You just have to go in there and battle, and it’s something I enjoy.”

While every netminder will occasionally give up a goal on a straight slap shot from the point or a wrister from the high slot, it’s a fairly rare occurrence. For the most part, today’s goalies are simply too good to allow that to happen on a regular basis. Because of this, teams strategically place players just outside the goalmouth in hopes of causing traffic and adding confusion.

At times this season, Avalanche forward David Jones has been tabbed with that job on the Avalanche’s second power-play unit.

“The goalies now are so good, it’s really hard to beat them with a straight shot unless you’re in real tight,” said David Jones. “Our power play revolves around getting traffic in front of the net and getting point shots. We’ve generated a few goals lately doing that stuff, and obviously it’s a pretty important part. No matter how hard a guy’s shot is, goalies now are just too good. You rarely beat them from back there unless it’s their own fault. That’s huge to get in front of the goalie.”

Stewart, who recently returned from a lengthy injury absence, agrees with that assessment. Prior to suffering a fractured hand on Nov. 27, many of his early-season goals were attributed to his play around the crease. Even if his screen didn’t cause a goalie to completely whiff on a shot attempt, it still put him in prime position to bury a rebound if one became available.

“We might not get it every time, but being a screen and making it so the goalie can’t see anything is important,” said Stewart. “Worst case scenario there’s a rebound and you put it home. It’s very rare where you see guys beat goalies with slap shots. If they do it’s a lucky goal, it’s a post and in, or it’s that perfect shot.”

But exactly how do NHL players go about creating havoc in front of the net? Are there tricks of the trade, or is it a matter of just positioning a big body outside the crease in an attempt to block a goalie’s view?

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“It’s really just about hard work and getting in front of their defenseman,” said Jones.” If a shot comes from the point you want to be in front of them so you have the first chance to get a tip on it. Otherwise they’ll just jump in front and block it. There are a few little things, like rolling off a guy or gaining position. Especially now with the new rules there’s not as much clutching and grabbing. Guys can’t feed you cross-checks as much anymore so it’s a little more fair for the forward.”

Jones brings up an interesting point when he compares the pre-lockout standards to those following the lockout. Although Jones wasn’t a member of the NHL prior to the 2004-05 lockout, John-Michael Liles was.

Liles, who spent his rookie year with the Avalanche in 2003-04, says traffic in front of the net weighs heavily on a defenseman’s mind. While blueliners can no longer simply throw a big cross check and “clear the crease” like in the old days, there are still ways to do the job effectively without inflicting damage with their lumber.

“With the new rules it’s tough to keep it completely clear,” said Liles. “But you’re trying to give your goalie a lane to see the puck. If you’re in the way, you move out of the way. If a guy is trying to get to the net, if you can bump him or get in his way when that shot is coming, that’s kind of the mindset you have in the defensive end. Back in the day you could throw cross checks and you could essentially lift guys out from the front of the net. With the new rules that takes away a lot of that.”

Like Jones and Stewart in the offensive end, Liles also has a few strategies he uses in the defensive zone. For a defender, it comes down to striking a balance between trying to keep an opposing player out of the way while also being mindful not to cause even more congestion during a battle in front of the net.

“If you end up getting in front of your own goalie that can be just as bad,” said Liles. “If the guy is already established in front, you’re trying to get his stick and not let him get a tip on it. Obviously if the goalie can’t see it and it’s tipped, it’s pretty much impossible for him to do anything except go down and take away as much of the net as possible.”

In one of the most crucial battles within the game – whether you’re an offensive player trying to clog the lane or a defenseman attempting to prevent just that from happening -  it all comes down to a few basic principles.

“Just try to stay as big as possible, fight for your ice and stand your position,” said Stewart.

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