Playing forward isn’t all about scoring goals. While it might seem like that’s the primary focus at early ages, as you progress into higher levels of hockey, your play without the puck becomes that much more critical. There are plenty of different skills forwards need to master both with and without the puck in order to progress to the highest level of hockey, so today I wanted to focus on two that are essential to becoming an elite player.
1) Finishing In Front
Didn’t I just finish saying that being a forward isn’t all about scoring? That’s true but if every forward on every team just scored a few more goals each season, we’d all be winning a lot more hockey games. In every girls hockey game I’ve ever watched, there are at least 4 or 5 goals left on the table due to the fact the forwards simply can’t put the puck in the back of the net effectively from in tight. Being able to score consistently from the hash marks down (inside the dot lines) definitely makes you a serious threat in girls hockey. There simply aren’t that many goals being scored on the rush off snap-shots from the top of the circle or from slap-shots from the point (unless you count off tips and rebounds - which are other examples of finishing in front). I could write many articles about the fine art of scoring in the 10 foot area surrounding the net (look for that one in the future), but I believe the most important skill needed to excel at this type of scoring is having your stick ready. There are far too many forwards who don’t even have their sticks on the ice when they are in this prime scoring area. I tell all my players that they need to have their stick on the ice, ready to shoot, anytime they are below the tops of the circles in the offensive zone. This goes for both forwards and defensemen - anytime you are below the top of the circle in the offensive zone, you are a goal scorer. You must have your stick on the ice in a position that allows you to receive a pass from the puck carrier, pick up a rebound off the pads or recover a loose puck off a scrum. Again, too many players are skating around in this area asking for pucks on their backhand. Even if you are on your off-wing (a left handed shot on the right side of the ice), you need to reposition your stick and body so you can quickly release a shot at any time. Once you’ve mastered giving a forehand target, you can work on having your stick pulled back so you are ready to shoot. This doesn’t mean you have a big wind-up like you’re taking a boomer from the point. It means that you have your stick on the ice but it’s pulled back like you would pull back the string on a bow to shoot an arrow. You just load it up slightly so that when that puck comes to you in that low slot area, you can quickly fire it into the back of the net. Too many players don’t have their stick pulled back into this quick-fire position while in the main scoring area and either have to settle for getting off a quick but weak shot, or they stick-handle the puck into a better shooting position, which means no quick release and less chance of scoring.
2) Winning Wall Battles
This is an essential skill for defensemen as well, but being able to go into a wall battle on your team’s breakout or on your forecheck and come out with the puck the majority of the time makes you an incredibly valuable forward. There are many skills that go in to winning these battles consistently - for example, having a head on a swivel to read pressure, using your body to separate player and puck when you don’t have it, using your body to protect pucks effectively when you do have it. Far too often, forwards simply go into these battles completely puck-focused and get into a sword fight with their opponent to try to win possession instead of using their body. Sometimes the right play on the breakout is to use your body as a shield to protect the puck from the pinching defender instead of trying to make the one touch pass to the centre or trying to chip up the wall. On the other side of the rink, having great positioning above the puck on the forecheck is an essential part of winning wall battles in the offensive zone. Just like in the breakout scenario, a lot of forwards become too puck focused when trying to win the wall on the forecheck and they focus on just trying to lift sticks instead of using their body to separate player and puck. On my teams, I am constantly teaching my players to ‘pin and puck’. Our first player into any puck battle in any zone is focused on pinning the puck carrier to separate her from the puck. It’s our 2nd player into the battle that picks up that puck and starts the transition to the attack. This is a much more effective strategy to regain possession than sending two players into the wall to try to fish the puck out with their sticks.
These are just two essential skills that forwards need to master in order to be more effective this season and progress to the next level in future seasons. Keep focusing on these little details as they make a big difference to your overall game.
To learn more about getting to the next level, visit www.totalfemalehockey.com. Kim McCullough, M.Sc., YCS is a highly sought-after expert in the development of aspiring hockey players and has played and coached at the highest level of women’s hockey in the world for the last decade. She is a former NCAA Division 1 captain, strength and conditioning All-American and played in the NWHL/CWHL for 7 years. She is the Director & Founder of Total Female Hockey and is currently coaching the Toronto-Leaside Jr Wildcats of the Provincial Women’s Hockey League (PWHL).