Let’s Play Hockey photo by Mike Thill
Growing up, I had a coach who constantly talked about being smart in the five feet on either side of the blue line. I always nodded and did what he told us to do with the puck in those areas, but it wasn’t until I started coaching 11 years ago that I realized how important those 10 feet of the ice are to playing great hockey. Making smart puck management decisions at your own blue line on breakouts and at your opponent’s blue line on entries are crucial to your success as a team and as a player. If you are constantly losing the puck at the blue lines, you’re not generating much offense and you’re probably playing a lot of defense in your own end.
Breaking out of your end cleanly is the key to generating offense. Whether the plan is to exit your zone with a pass up the boards, play through the middle, flip in the air or shot high and hard off the glass, the bare minimum of success on your breakout is to get that puck over the blue line. Teams who make poor puck decisions under pressure usually have bad breakouts and probably don’t win many hockey games. Not every breakout pass needs to be (or even should be) tape-to-tape, but making sure you do whatever it takes to make sure that the puck crosses the blue line is a critical part of kickstarting your offense.
Here are some skills to focus on to help your team have better breakout success at your own blue line:
• To use the wall, get the puck off the wall: Trying to shove the puck up the strong side wall through a sea of defenders never works out well. You might get the puck past them the odd time, but you certainly won’t have much speed heading up the ice if you do. If you really want to use the strong side wall on the breakout, make sure you pull the puck off the wall first. This can be as simple as the winger pulling the puck towards the middle of the ice when she receives it so that she can chip it past the pinching defenseman or your Ds and centers skating the puck up as close to the dot line as possible before making their pass decision coming out of your own end.
• Get more pucks in the air: The pros use this all the time and it is a great option on the breakout. Flipping the puck high out of the zone or sending it high and hard off the glass are good options because there is no “traffic” in the air. Sure, you might hit the ceiling of the rink every once in a while or hit a defenseman’s shoulder with the puck on occasion, but that’s a lot better than turning it over with a tape-to-tape pass to the other team. You’ve got to practice these options a lot to get good at them, but they work very very well.
• Teach stick lifts: Sometimes you make passes into traffic and that winger knows they’re going to be under pressure when the puck comes to them. Instead of trying to make some fancy play with the puck when you’ve got a checker bearing down on you, try lifting their stick instead. If you lift the stick right as the puck comes by, the puck will get out, the defender will be tied up and it most likely won’t get called for icing because it went right through the two of you. It’s not the prettiest breakout play, but it does release pressure and get the puck out of your zone.
Now that you’ve gotten the puck out of your end and through the neutral zone, you’ve got to be sure you win the opponent’s blue line, too. There’s nothing worse than having a rush down the ice killed by a bad puck decision, or even worse, going offside. Bad turnovers at the opponent’s blue line often lead to odd-man rushes coming back the other way.
• Make a No-Dangle Zone: Don’t get me wrong, making a smart deke 1-on-1 as you enter the opponent’s zone can lead to a great offensive chance. But if your team is struggling to generate offense due to bad decisions at the opponent’s blue line, you might want to install a no-dangle zone within five feet of either side of the blue line.
• Teach players how to surf the blue line: We all hate seeing players go offside, especially when it kills an odd-man rush. So make sure you teach the non-puck carrying forward how to turn at the blue line and surf across it (with one foot on either side of the blue) to save the play and avoid an offside. This is a specific skating skill and should be worked on when you are working on entries.
• Teach players how to put pucks behind defenders (more than just dump-ins): I coach girls’ hockey and we don’t have full body checking, so the puck carrier doesn’t need to worry about getting laid out with a crushing hit as she crosses the blue line. I’d like to see more players learn how to put pucks five feet behind defenders so that they can get around them and get it back. If you do a great job of putting the puck into space like this, you should be able to shake defenders easily. Remember, they can’t obstruct or interfere like we used to in the old days, so you just need to have good puck placement and powerful east-west skating to make this work.
Learn these skills, practice them often and win those blue lines.
To learn more about how to use what you do off the ice to take your game to the next level on the ice, click here. Kim McCullough, MSc, YCS, is an expert in the development of aspiring female hockey players. She is a former NCAA Division I captain and played in the National Women’s Hockey League for six years. She is currently the Director and Founder of Total Female Hockey as well as the head coach of the Toronto-Leaside Junior Wildcats in the Provincial Women’s Hockey League.