In hockey, the puck is the most precious commodity. There’s plenty of ice, up to 12 players at a time and two nets. There’s a single, solitary puck that everyone is constantly fighting over.
If you watched this year’s NCAA Division I National Tournament, no team chased down and owned the puck quite like the University of Denver. Probing puck pursuit and prolific possession led the Pioneers through the tournament of 16 to the school’s eighth national championship.
Head coach Jim Montgomery begins on Day 1, instilling that mindset and culture with his team.
“Our whole team identity is based on puck pressure and puck possession,” Montgomery said. “We practice that way and we play that way.”
From the beginning of the season, the Denver coaching staff teaches the basics and then builds puck pursuit and possession into the team concept.
In order to possess the puck, you first must get it. Montgomery’s team is dogged on the forecheck, but it takes more than hard work. There is a key to pressuring and pursuing an opponent with the puck.
“Our puck pressure is based on angling,” Montgomery said.
In angling, like many other skills, the Pioneers’ bench boss lays down a foundation for the season by starting with the fundamentals for each player, before incorporating it into a team concept.
“We start with one-on-one situations and then we evolve into two-on-two, three-on-three up to five-on-five,” Montgomery said. “We teach our players how to angle with their sticks on the ice and how to gain speed into their check.”
Denver funnels opponents into compromising positions, so that either the attacking player can make a play on the puck, or his teammate.
“The core is, if you know how to pressure a guy into an area where he’s trapped, then you have a good chance of forcing that guy to make a bad pass, where a teammate can recover [the puck] or you have the ability to get a stick on the pass to create a turnover,” Montgomery said.
Getting sticks into lanes to shut down passes is taught, but it is secondary to creating a good angle. Rather than lazily reaching, players need to get their feet moving and body in the proper area and then move their sticks into the passing lane.
“Once you create the angle, then it’s a lot easier when he gets to that area where you’ve pushed him towards, to really get your stick in the passing lane because you can read what he’s trying to do,” Montgomery said. “Being able to read where he wants to go and putting your stick in that passing lane, or ‘stick-on-stick’ a lot of people call it, becomes a lot easier.”
Just like Denver builds a forecheck by teaching the individual tactics and later incorporating into the team concept, Montgomery begins puck possession with the effort of the individual. Shaping a puck-possession juggernaut starts at the beginning of the season.
“We start it early in the year,” Montgomery said. “We put them into a lot of situations where there’s a one-on-one battle – either in foot races to loose pucks or one player initially has possession and the other guy has to defend.”
Once you get the puck, your opponent will do everything in their power to get it back. So, it’s important to know how protect it.
“It simply starts with one-on-one puck protection drills where a guy’s got to work on cutbacks,” Montgomery said.
From the individual, it then expands to the team concept. However, the concept isn’t only taught in the offensive zone in the team scheme.
“You work on it two-on-two and trying to create scoring chances and then go to three-on-three,” Montgomery said. “Then you get to five-on-five and it covers all three zones. Everyone thinks puck protection is in the offensive zone, but it’s actually in all three zones.”
While Montgomery doesn’t use the term “small-area games,” preferring “battle drills” at the college level, his concepts can be applied to both. However, he believes it’s important to focus the intent, so not to confuse the players on which skill they’re focusing on. This will help the coaching staff as much as the players.
“I think it’s more for the coach. What is the purpose of the drill?” Montgomery asked. “If you’re doing a two-on-two small-area game, are you working on puck protection? Well, then you’re making sure your players are not turning over the puck, not throwing blind passes. In my opinion, if you want to get players better at something, your focus has to be on that and then they’ll understand clearly what your objective is for the drill.
“Too many coaches want to coach everything into every drill.”
By narrowing the intent of drills, players will naturally grasp concepts on both sides of the puck and roll them together as the season progresses.
“You have to have a singular focus and have your players getting better at one skill,” Montgomery said. “They will develop both [offensive and defensive] skills as they get later into the year, hopefully those habits are engrained in them and they are just naturally doing it.”
The goal of the game is to score more than your opponent. But before coaches can teach shooting and scoring, they need to put their players into good positions to get the puck and then do something with it.
“Everybody likes to score goals, so if you want guys to play for you, teach playing with puck,” Montgomery advised. “You can’t just say you’re going to be a puck-possession team and then 25 minutes of your practice is skating without the pucks. You can do your skating drills with pucks. If you’re going to teach playing with the puck, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time on developing puck-protection drills, offensive skill play and playing with the puck.”