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4 Keys to Better Breakouts

01/24/2017, 2:00pm MST
By Michael Rand - Special to USA Hockey

Learn how to improve your team's breakouts

Your ice time is limited, and so is your appetite for parts of the adult hockey game that aren’t exactly fun. For some people, these can be broadly defined as: “playing defense.”

Ah, but you can’t move the puck until you get the puck. And once you get the puck, there’s a good chance it’s going to be in your own defensive zone. You’re going to need a good plan to get where you want to be: right in front of the opponent’s net.

Erik Strand, the women’s hockey coach at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, has some thoughts on how you can do that – both from a practical standpoint and a buy-in standpoint.

Not a two-person effort

Even though there are typically only two defensemen on the ice at once, the concept of team defense is clearly not a two-person effort. Same goes for breaking out of the zone.

“It’s a six-person effort. We really stress that the d-zone starts the minute a turnover happens,” Strand said. “At that point, until we gain control of the puck, we’re hunting it. The d-zone itself is making sure you get back-pressure to create the turnover and then it’s working hard to get to your support areas.”

At that point, it becomes about being in a good position and making smart decisions.

“Centers and wings need to be in positions where they are open. It’s not a matter of standing there and waiting for defensemen to get it to you in a spot. You need to get into passing lanes,” Strand says. “You can’t be tethered to the blue line. The hashmarks are a great road map – and if you’re the center, you want to put yourself as a triangle with your low defenseman on the puck and your wing on the wall.”

Use the middle

It might go against something a hockey coach told you a long time ago, but don’t be afraid to use the middle of the ice when breaking out of the zone. Yes, the risks are higher. But the rewards are also out there for those who can do it well. Teams have become so adept at clogging up the wall that going up the middle can be a good strategy. The caveat, however, is that your team needs to understand that somebody must be moving through the middle for this kind of breakout to be effective.

“You have to make decisions on how comfortable you are operating in the middle of the ice,” Strand says. “If you’ve got that team that buys in, it opens up all lanes. If not, you’re going to have to figure out how to get through that wall that other teams are creating right now. It’s amazing how teams can extend plays.”

Again, it’s not for everyone – or every situation. But don’t fear it.

“You have to have the guts to use the middle of the ice, when so many of us have been taught since mites not to pass through the middle. Teams that are successful in middle of the ice are throwing off other teams,” Strand said. “You have to have the right personnel. You can’t have robots out there. The middle isn’t always open, but it’s open a lot more than it used to be.”

Getting technical

Strand has a couple of good reminders that can aid in producing a smooth breakout.

“Definitely have your feet up ice. You can’t have your toes pointed toward your defensemen if you’re a forward,” he says. “By the time you transition and get your body turned after you have the puck, there’s a great chance you’ll have a person on you, ready to poke check. So definitely, when receiving that pass, you want your toes pointing up ice toward the offensive zone.”

In addition, defensemen gain a great deal of information by doing a simple shoulder check as they approach a puck deep in the zone.

“Your play away from the puck is so important,” Strand says. “Let’s say it’s a loose puck and you are the first one on it. You have to do a shoulder check to see what’s going on. The other team might be changing or they might have a hard forechecker on you. Constantly have your head on a swivel.”

Looking over your shoulder gives you that extra information and time to make a good decision once you retrieve the puck. Maybe there’s an open teammate looking for a stretch pass to jumpstart the attack. Maybe you need to make a quick short pass right away or even turn up ice and skate it yourself.

All six involved and communicating (including the goalie)

Strand circles back on the idea that all six players are important to a good breakout by noting what a goalie can bring to the mix.

“The goalie has tremendous impact. Down in Florida, there was a coach who talked about how, if you have a team that communicates, you have a 6-on-5 every shift,” Strand said. “A goalie is always looking up ice. The more information you have, the better decision you should make, so communication from the goalie is important. If they are back there and not using their voice, they’re not using their information.”

And sometimes that information leads to the most important decision of all: live to play another day. We’ve all been there before.

“If you’re coming around the net and have at least two forecheckers coming at you hard and your wing is in coverage, it’s the equivalent of a punt in football,” Strand says. “Get it out to the neutral zone.”

Improving your team’s breakouts is key to relieving pressure in the d-zone, jumpstarting your offense – and keeping your legs fresh. Remember: it’s always more fun playing with the puck than without it.

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