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Coaches Room

Face-off execution imperative for teams as games become tighter

Nachbaur breaks down various strategy facets for draws in each zone

by Don Nachbaur / Special to

The Coaches Room is a weekly column by one of three former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. In this edition, Don Nachbaur, a former assistant with the Los Angeles Kings, discusses the importance of face-offs and the different ways teams approach them.

As the regular season winds down, teams will become more desperate to obtain points to move up in the standings or solidify positions heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Coaches will redefine defensive detail. Checking will become more competitive and physical, space will be limited, and scores will be tighter.

A game might be won or lost on one critical face-off, and that could make the difference in whether a team qualifies for the playoffs.

The biggest factor in a game is possession of the puck. It allows you to advance zones offensively while controlling the game. Teams without possession will spend more time defending and playing on their heels.

Face-offs are one of the rare times in a game that set plays can be run. All teams have pre-determined plays, routes and paths for players to take. Each player has a role on each face-off, and each player is required to know and execute the plan.

Face-off alignments are pre-scouted for tendencies, special plays and key players.

Here's a look at the different types of face-off wins and some of the specifics involved.


Defensive-zone face-offs

Based on the scouting report, players will have knowledge of three or four set breakouts on wins. These include weak-side and strong-side exits, short and long plays, defenseman-to-defenseman passes (D bump), reverses, etc.

Normally, the players on the ice communicate with each other what the plan will be. Each player is responsible for knowing where the puck is coming out and executing his role.  

Coaches will occasionally change alignments based on seeing the opposition's pressure. The primary objective of a defensive-zone face-off win is to exit the zone as quickly and controlled as possible, which makes containment by the opposition more difficult. Other times, just clearing the zone will be enough.

Little things are critically important, especially in the defensive zone. Defensemen must be quick off the mark for puck retrieval. Forwards must jump into areas to eliminate direct lanes for the opposition to the puck. As soon as the puck hits the ice, it's time to compete.

The "bump and jump" is critical. The bump is the competing part of the game. It's physically approaching the opposing player and making contact before you jump through to your position.

The "bump and jump" allows time for your defensemen to get to the loose puck. With obstruction rules, players need to be smart and extremely competitive. They need to be in the starting blocks, ready to explode with their feet, make contact and jump through. They also must be ready to defend if the attacking team gets the loose puck.


Offensive-zone face-offs

There are many set plays when taking an offensive-zone face-off. The main objective is to get the puck and traffic to the net. It's a simple philosophy but every shot to the net, every rebound you create and every obstacle you place around the net increases the degree of difficulty for the defending team.

I have pre-scouted teams with more than 10 set plays off a win in the attacking zone. It's important to know how defend each, but the difficulty comes in defending the shot, if it happens, and what happens after the shot.

Some teams have very intricate offensive-zone schemes, which can cause coverage problems. The most difficult to be defend might be crossing plays when the wing's movement can be hard to read.

Wings jumping off the wall and behind the center and shooting in motion can cause issues, especially if the player is an explosive skater such as William Karlsson of the Vegas Golden Knights or Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their explosive power to the inside and quick releases can catch defenders by surprise. Those type of players make it difficult for the board-side defensemen to defend. Therefore, the wings must provide support.

Other challenging situations include defensemen activating down the wall (D down), quick-release plays such as one-timers, wings crossing at different levels (over/under), pop plays (a player pops high for a quick release) and centers going forward.

The key to defending these plays is communication, knowing roles and executing. Players must fulfill their obligations, but if they fail because they misread the play or were obstructed, teammates must adapt their jobs and defend what is important; "The House" -- the area from the goal posts to the face-off dots to the tops of the circles.

In other words, teammates must read and check off their responsibilities while helping a teammate in trouble.

Video: TBL@DET: Kucherov buries Stamkos' feed off face-off


Neutral-zone face-offs

There are two objectives after winning a neutral-zone face-off: controlling the game through possession or getting the puck up the ice and into the offensive zone to set up a forecheck.

Creating the rush after neutral-zone wins is not easy. The neutral zone is extremely difficult to come through because teams pressure so quickly after losing the draw.

This is done to force players to relinquish possession before they want. For this reason, set plays must strike quickly and happen with precision.

The team winning possession through a face-off in the neutral zone will have a designed play in mind, complete with routes for the forwards to take. Executing to get through this congested area requires good bumps (one-touch passes) to provide time, good reads and skill to make the play.


Special teams face-offs

Whether on the power play or the penalty kill, the face-off can be a momentum builder for the winning team.

On the power play, starting with possession allows the team to build an attack immediately, which can result in using the entire two minutes, thus wearing the other team down or building momentum. Losing the draw typically reduces your power-play time by approximately 30 seconds because of the need to regroup and re-enter the zone. This can be a task against good teams that defend their blue line and make zone entries difficult.

Power plays that begin with the puck can use different philosophies. Some teams use quick-strike methods (immediately shooting and attacking) while others prefer to roll into their setup and move to set areas to build their attack.

Penalty killing is similar. Winning the draw and icing the puck can cut your penalty-killing time in the defensive zone by approximately 30 seconds, while building confidence. It can also deflate the momentum of the opposition.

Video: NJD@BUF: McCabe wires one past Kinkaid for PPG

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