For those who don’t have a lot of experience watching hockey, it can be a complicated game. Even for those who have seen their share of hockey in person or on TV, there is always more to learn about the game. There are dozens of things to look for during each moment of a hockey game, and here are just a few to watch for to enhance your understanding and enjoyment.
For Hockey Newcomers
You don’t necessarily have to watch the puck all the time. The action away from the puck is often more interesting than the play immediately around it. One key to scoring goals requires players to get open to receive passes and then work themselves into better scoring positions. But to accomplish this, skating at top speed isn’t always the best strategy.
Notice how potential pass receivers often adjust their speed to get into an area where they are open for a pass. If a player is carrying the puck, notice how sometimes they’ll slow down to allow a teammate to sprint into the open. Watch the puck when it is about to be shot on goal, but if you can train your eyes to see what is going on away from the puck, you’ll start to get a sense of how plays develop.
There is an old expression in hockey: “Win the battles for possession of loose pucks and you’ll win the war.” Hockey is a possession game; you cannot score unless you possess the puck. See if you can see how defenders team up to win battles for loose pucks by subtly interfering with opponents (while trying not to commit a penalty) so that their teammates have time to get to a loose puck.
You are only allowed to body check an opponent when he has possession of the puck, or within a second after they have lost or given up possession. Good timing and great balance are required to throw a good body check. Watch how the hitter waits until the last second before he explodes into the person he is trying to hit. Of course to really appreciate this, here is a reminder to try not to get mesmerized by watching the puck!
Penalties are a major part of hockey, since the penalized player gets sent to the penalty box and the other team has a power play (more on that later) during that time. When an official sees a penalty committed, he will raise his hand but will not blow the whistle until the penalized team gets possession of the puck. This is why you will sometimes see the other team pull its goalie and substitute in another skater, knowing that even if the penalized team gets the puck, the play will be whistled dead before they can shoot at the empty net.
Speaking of empty nets, a team that is trailing with only a minute or so left in a game will often pull its goalie in exchange for an extra skater. This gives the trailing team six skaters versus the other team’s five in an effort to get a goal in the waning moments of the game. Of course, the risk is that the team that is ahead will add to its lead once it gets the puck back and has an opportunity to shoot at an open net.
For More Experienced Hockey Fans
There are 3 key elements to a successful power play:
1. How efficient is the team on the power play at getting the puck across the opponent’s blue line and then keeping or regaining possession?
2. Side-to-side movement of the puck once possession has been established. When the puck moves from side to side, the defenders and goalie must move in response. Getting defenders to move will open up passing and shooting lanes. The more you can get them moving, the better your chances of getting a shot through to the net or finding a teammate in a better scoring position available to receive a pass. And when a goalie moves side to side, all kinds of holes open up for pucks to find their way through.
3. Recovery of loose pucks. After a shot is attempted, teams on effective power plays give themselves second and third chances by winning the battles for possession of the puck. Teams on great power plays always use their man advantage by outnumbering the defensive players who are trying to get to the loose puck. If two players on the penalty kill unit surround a loose puck, the team on the power play should have three of its players trying to win possession. Watch for this.
Break down what is going right or wrong with these three elements, and you will figure out what adjustments both the penalty killing and power play units need to make to be more successful.
One thing to look for that happens often in a game is the “chip play.” This is where an attacking player approaching a defender at his blue line will often shoot the puck off the boards nearest to the defender and then chase after it himself. This is a new strategy that has become very effective since the NHL cracked down on hooking and holding fouls.
Two seasons ago, the defender would have just stuck his stick out and prevented the attacking player from skating after the puck. Now that this is not allowed (interference penalty), the attacking player can use his speed as an effective way to recover possession. If the attacking player’s speed exceeds that of the retreating defending player, the chance of recovering the puck is excellent. Watch someone like Scott Niedermayer do this on a Ducks power play.
For Hard Core Hockey Fans
Pay attention to the personnel match-ups. When the Ducks play at home, Coach Randy Carlyle has the last change after a whistle. This means he can wait for the opposing coach to put his players on the ice first, and then match up his players accordingly. He likely will put his top checking forwards and his most effective defensemen on the ice to oppose the top scorers of the visiting team. Usually that means Samuel Pahlsson’s line or Todd Marchant’s line will play against the opponent’s top scorer. Watch also for what defense pairing the coach selects to play against them too.
What is also interesting is that match ups change during the game according to the score and according to how successful they have been working out. Lines will also be changed on the fly to get or avoid certain match ups. This chess match between coaches is fun to watch, and it’s also interesting to speculate why coaches change match up strategies throughout a game.
Watch for defensemen “fronting the puck”. When the NHL moved the nets back two feet closer to the boards and moved the blue lines two feet closer to center, they effectively made shots from the point (just inside the attacking zone blue line) four feet farther away from the goal than they used to be. This gives goalies and defensemen a split second longer to react to shots.
Combine this fact with new rule changes that prevent defensemen from punishing opponents in front of their goal, and you’ll see defensemen using a new tactic in front of their net. They’ll actually stand in front of the opponent and act as another goalie, which makes getting shots through to the net even more difficult. Certain teams do it all the time (especially on the penalty kill), some hardly ever. But it’s interesting to see what defensive tactic different teams will use, and to evaluate how effective “fronting the puck” is working for them.
Look for more aspects of the game to watch for in future issues of Ducks Digest, the official game day publication of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and right here at MightyDucks.com.
Brian Hayward has been a television analyst with the Mighty Ducks since the team began play in the 1993-94 season. In addition to his work with the Ducks, he also calls games for NBC and was one of the network’s analysts during its coverage of men’s hockey at this year’s Winter Olympics. Hayward was a goalie for 11 seasons with the Winnipeg Jets, Montreal Canadiens, Minnesota North Stars and San Jose Sharks.