Gap control is one of the most important skills/concepts for defensemen to learn. Simply stated, a defenseman’s gap is the distance between the puck carrying forward and the defender. Making a play at the right time, and knowing how and when to make the commitment can be the difference between a defender making a great play or getting beat. The basics to setting a proper gap can be broken down into three main points:
- Required skating skills
- Ability to react to the rush
- Rule of thumb
Required Skating Skills
In order for a defensive player to set a good gap, he/she must first be proficient in several aspects of skating. The first thing a player must be able to do is accelerate quickly from a dead stop. Most full-ice rushes will begin with defending players standing relatively still on the point in their offensive zone. As soon as the puck is turned over and the opposing team begins to head up ice, a defender must be able to quickly accelerate to almost match the speed of the forward. As the defender accelerates, it’s important to note that he/she should begin by taking away the middle of the ice – or accelerating toward the middle of the ice initially. This simple step forces the forward to stay to the outside of the ice where he/she is less of a scoring threat. Much time and effort should be spent working on the proper techniques for backward quick-starts. Inexperienced players are often forced to skate forward to initially accelerate, then turn backwards due to deficiencies in this area. Players should always be facing the play, and must learn how to accelerate backwards efficiently. Laura Stamm’s Power Skating book does a fantastic job of describing the techniques for both the straight backward start and cross-over backward start.
Ability to React to the Rush
Once a defender has accelerated backwards, it’s important for them to be able to react efficiently to the rush. Rushes don’t always come straight down the ice, instead they shift directions and pace frequently. Lateral skating skills and the ability to change skating speed (shift gears) are essential elements of a strong defenseman’s game. As the play heads down ice anything from a backchecker to an official can cause the forward to change directions. If the puck carrier moves laterally and the defender continues heading quickly down ice, the distance between the two (or the gap) will continue to increase. Defensemen must be able to move laterally to “buy time” and keep the proper gap as the direction of play changes. In addition, forwards consistently (and intentionally) change the pace of their skating to attempt to throw the defender off rhythm. Minor lateral movement and/or the ability to match the forward’s pace play a huge role in being able to keep a proper gap.
Rules of Thumb
A simple rule of thumb for proper gap distances is 3 stick-lengths away from the puck carrier at the defender’s offensive blue line, 2 stick-lengths at the red line, and 1 stick-length/body contact made at the defending blue line (see diagram below). The three neutral zone lines also present unique opportunities to make plays. At the offensive blue line, if the defenseman is able to make a play, he/she can keep the puck in the zone to sustain the offensive pressure, however a miss at this location can result in a very long breakaway or odd-man rush. When a defender makes a play in this area, it is usually referred to as a “pinch.” The center red line gives defenders an opportunity to force the play before the puck carrier is able to legally dump the puck into the attacking zone. Many coaches will allow their defensemen to step up and attempt to force the play at the red line if they have proper backchecking support in place on the rush. Finally, the puck carrier’s offensive blue line is arguably the best place for a defender to step up and make a play. If the defender has played his/her gap properly, they should be within one stick length of the puck carrier by the time they reach this area. Forcing a play at this blue line – either by body contact, poke check, or angling – often times forces the puck carrier’s line-mates to go offside. Defensemen often mistakenly think they need to make a big hit at the blue line in order to be effective, however the truth is even forcing the puck carrier to change directions and delay slightly can be enough to stop the rush.