DETROIT - NOVEMBER 11: Sam Gagner #89 of the Edmonton Oilers carries the puck as Valtteri Filppula #51 and Ruslan Salei #24 both of the Detroit Red Wings backcheck during their NHL game at Joe Louis Arena on November 11 2010 in Detroit Michigan.(Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
Back pressure (or back checking or puck pursuit) is often an over looked part of the hockey skill set. Generally speaking, you are evaluated on your ability to skate hard back into the play, but there is far more to it than that.
When pursuing the puck, there are two main scenarios. The first is when you are pursuing a player on a breakaway and the second is when you are pursuing a player towards your teammates (i.e. on a 2 on 2). In both instances you are trying to take an angle that forces the puck carrier into limited options, not necessarily to try and steal the puck.
Often times what you’ll see is the back checker tries to attack the stick of the puck carrier. That’s basically the equivalent of abandoning your position to throw a big hit. When it works it’s great, when it doesn’t it causes problems. Whether playing defence from the front or back, it’s about taking what’s available and not over committing.
When pursuing the puck on a breakaway, most people think you are trying to stop the shot entirely, which is a bad idea in my opinion. You have a well padded goaltender who will gladly stop shots all day, providing you aren’t hanging them out to dry. The key isn’t to prevent the shot (by all means if the play to do it is there then take it), but to instead limit the options of the forward. You are trying to force them away from the middle of the ice and prevent them from coming back across (which will eliminate half their options). Once you’ve recognized that you aren’t going to stop the shot, it’s imperative that you give your goaltender the best chance to stop the puck by eliminating the option to go across the net.
Paul Martin gets a bit of an unlucky break and Claude Giroux is able to poke the puck past him. Giroux ends up on the right side of the ice which gives him the ability to use his shot on this play. Even though Giroux has an excellent shot, if Martin can cut the angle off enough to worsen the angle, it’s a shot Marc Andre Fleury can stop. Instead, Martin goes for the stick lift and allows Giroux the opportunity to cut back to the middle (forcing Fleury to head to his right), then makes a nice cut back move to score. He can’t make that move without access to both sides of the net.
After Giroux pokes the puck past Martin, he’s outside about in line with the hash marks. Martin wants to try and drive Giroux wide and failing that at least prevent Giroux from cutting back. Notice that Giroux is a RH shot but has the puck in front of him (i.e. not a shooting position).
Martin gambles here and tries to step around back on Giroux. As soon as he pivots his skates he is loses all his speed and his stick lift has to work. Giroux still has the puck way in front of him and not in a shooting position.
Giroux now has the option to go to either side of the net and the move by Martin also gives him more space to put the puck into a shooting position if he chooses.
Martin had one last chance to salvage the play. He could have shut off Giroux’s cut back to Fleury's glove, but kind of let up because he thought Giroux was going blocker side. Watch Giroux's feet though, he keeps his skates pointed forward and doesn't commit until the last second. There's a point of no return in skating where once you point your skates in one direction, you can't cut back the other way on a dime without physically stopping. Martin peeled off before Giroux committed, which gave him the extra room to score.
Shea Weber and David Legwand pursue Henrik Sedin, with Weber providing pressure from the side and Legwand from behind. Legwand is never in any sort of position to apply body pressure, so he does his best to annoy Henrik by waving at his stick and preventing Henrik from getting the puck into a good shooting position. Weber provides the side support to limit where Henrik can take the puck.
Legwand is just trying to catch up into the play (after slowing a bit at the blueline for some reason) Weber is trying to cut the angle off from the right side and force Sedin across the middle and preventing him from cutting back. Rinne is out past the top of the crease to take away the shot.
Weber knows he isn’t going to catch Henrik so he puts his stick into the cut back lane to help cut it off. It also puts his stick in a position to perform a stick check if he does bring it over. Legwand starts harassing Henrik on the other side, forcing him to keep the puck out front.
Weber doesn’t give up pursuit until Henrik’s skates turn (point of no return). As soon as the skates turn, Weber’s job turns to clean up duty (clearing rebounds, players, etc...). Legwand continues to bug Henrik and Rinne is playing deke all the way.
The key is to give your goaltender the best possible chance to make a save, not to prevent the shot. You help him out by limiting what the puck carrier can do with the puck. On any breakaway, they have the option to shoot, go left and go right and if you can cut that down to 1, your goaltender is going to have an easier time.
Part 2 will be up in the next couple of days, then the tactics section will start focusing on plays that happen in Oiler games over the previous week. If there is something you see during a game that you want to go over, jot down the game, approx time and period and post it in the post game threads. I'll try and go over 2 or 3 of them in every update.