If you want to win a Stanley Cup, you must be very strong in the neutral zone on both sides of the puck. Your five skaters have to be on the same page as they move the puck out of their own end and through the neutral zone. As you approach your own blue line with the puck, you need short-pass support from a forward in the middle of the ice. That forward must be breaking toward the puck carrier, not away from him. This gives the puck carrier an easy and direct passing option and allows him to advance the puck with speed.
I always want to see my players moving through the neutral zone together. If the forwards and defensemen get too stretched out, your team will be forced to make long, high-risk passes. That makes it much easier for your opponent to disrupt your attack.
At center ice, if the puck carrier sees that he canít carry the puck into the zone, heíll have to dump it in. In a perfect world, I like to see one of my defensemen dump the puck in that situation. If a D-man dumps it, all three forwards can move into the offensive zone to forecheck. If a forward has to dump it, heíll likely get held up at the blue line, and thereíll be one less forechecker on the attack.
Defensively, itís vital that your team acts as a group of five. You want your gap (the space between the forwards and defensemen) to be tight. Whether theyíre up in the neutral zone or farther back, you need a tight gap. Itís important to gain good position through the middle of the neutral zone. You donít want an opponent to be able to trap two or three of your players with one good pass. That kind of stuff kills you in a big game.
And you definitely donít want to see an opposing defenseman get past your forwards in the neutral zone. If he does, thereís probably going to be an odd-man rush against you. If you give up enough of those, you can expect to be on the wrong end of the handshake line at the end of the series.
Ken Hitchcock is a former Stanley Cup-winning head coach. This article appears in the May 13 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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