Today we’re going to look at something that’s relatively basic, but often makes the difference between a good two-way player and a one-dimensional guy: identifying your guy on the backcheck.

As a forward backchecking a 3-on-2 or a 4-on-3, the rules are pretty simple: if you can catch the puck carrier early, go for it. Otherwise, you take the wide, far forward without the puck who’ll inevitably end up being the high guy (as the other forward will drive the middle lane).

In the end, it’s even more basic than that – if you see your teammates are latched on to certain guys, take the uncovered one for flip’s sake.

Let’s look at Ilya Kovalchuk’s goal against the Florida Panthers last night.

From the get-go, Tomas Kopecky is doing an admirable job of coming back. Most of us would skate casually back up the ice, but he’s booking it like he’s on a breakaway. And he has to – look how far behind the puck carrier he starts.

This is the problem though – he’s put his head down, and is purely working, not thinking.

Right now is when he needs to be assessing who his guy is – you don’t know how hard you have to work until you figure out what your job is. Work smarter, not harder, as they say.

In the screenshot below, you can see he picked up a stride or two on Kovalchuk, but he still hasn’t looked around. I can’t figure out why he’s so doggedly pursuing the puck – you’d only pressure the guy with the puck on the backcheck if your team has numbers, and there’s no reason for him to think they do – he hasn’t looked up once.

While I don’t like F1′s decision to stay with the guy going through the middle (should leave him for d-man, grab wide guy), it’s easily readable for that d-man, so he fades wide to cover the other forward.

So, looking at the situation above, we can see that all three Florida players back have a guy, and Tallinder is open.

When Kovalchuk finds Tallinder with a pass in the next pic, the d-man is screwed. He can’t just stay with Kovalchuk and let Tallinder waltz in untouched. He has to hope Kopecky can catch Kovalchuk and pick him up the rest of the way in OH GOD he’s turning to chase the puck isn’t he?

Nothing has changed for that d-man – he still has to stop Tallinder from getting a clean shot. He’s committed. Kopecky, well, he still hasn’t had a thought aside from “PUCK. WANT.”

Kovalchuk’s just like “‘sup guys, I’ll be over here if you need me.”

They’re both committed. Their only hope is that the d-man blocks the shot, or the rebound is controlled.

Nope.

And, of course, that’s Ilya Kovalchuk. 1-0 Devils.

It happens on the goal below with Bertuzzi too. The old “work smarter, not harder” adage definitely applies well to backchecking.

Dude, who’s my guy? Not nearly enough head-on-a-swivel for most coach’s liking.

At some point, I’d like to break down a neutral zone defense, so if anyone sees one that works effectively (or even ineffectively), please email it to me at backhandshelf@thescore.com.

Comments (11)

  1. I think he is doggedly pursuing the puck because he’s the one who turned it over.

  2. Filly don’t do backcheck.

  3. You’d think that’d make him more prone to doing the *right* thing the next time. Ah well. Also: I love the Filly meme.

  4. Justin,

    If you want a clinic on how NOT to do neutral zone defense watch the Chicago Vs Edmonton game where edmonton dominated. It almost looked like no one was covered for most the passes. People getting behind D. It was bad.

  5. the posts in this series are just about my favorite posts in the entire history of hockey blogging.

  6. Justin,
    I’ve got to give it to you, I love these types of posts. I’ve played hockey, it’s refreshing to see someone break down the routine plays like this. It’s a great way to educate both hockey and non-hockey players on the nuances of the game. In the end, it gives everyone the opportunity to educate themselves a bit more.

  7. I’m with you, E and AJ, these posts are great for fans like me who love the game but have never played, so we don’t always know exactly what we’re seeing (who’s doing things right, who screwed up, etc.).

  8. Excellent write up Justin. You break the play down nicely (and humorously). Keep these posts coming.

  9. Isn’t it more of a lack of communication between the defenseman and Kopecky? Wouldn’t the defenseman want to stay with Kovalchuk if Kopecky was changing his route to chase Tallinder? Isn’t it supposed to be the forward’s responsibility to take the late man in?

    I wouldn’t mind you breaking down a successful backcheck from one of the better 2-way forwards in the game.

    • I think some of it is communication, but watching the play, The Dman has to make that quick decision once the puck is passed back to Tallinder. At that point, Kovi is wide and it seems like Kopecky has finally hustled back to stay with him. Unfortunately, the Dman makes the read on the puck, and Kopecky finally lifts his head up and decides to leave his man. If he’d just picked up Tallinder from the start, things would have been ok for FLA.

    • I think some of it is communication, but watching the play, The Dman has to make that quick decision once the puck is passed back to Tallinder. At that point, Kovi is wide and it seems like Kopecky has finally hustled back to stay with him. Unfortunately, the Dman makes the read on the puck, and Kopecky finally lifts his head up and decides to leave his man. If he’d just picked up Tallinder from the start, things would have been ok for FLA.

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