Under Pressure

[ posted by Kim on 22nd of September, 2017 ]

The more girls hockey games I watch, the more I see teams playing a full pressure system when they don’t have the puck. Sometimes, it looks like there is no system at all – players are just chasing that little black thing all around the ice no matter where it goes.

Now don’t get me wrong – it is definitely a challenge to play against a hard pressuring system, especially when it comes to breaking the puck out of your own end. But it also means that if you come up against a team that can pass the puck well, you are going to find yourself chasing the game all night long.

The entire game of hockey really breaks down to a series of 1 on 1 battles. A forechecker against a defenseman who is looking to make the 1st breakout pass. A goalie against a shooter with a breakaway. A forward looking to beat a defenseman to get a scoring chance in the offensive zone.  In order to play any of these 1v1s effectively, players must first understand the most critical defensive concept (or as I like to call it – play without the puck concept) which is ‘pressure vs contain’.

When defending in all parts of the ice, players must understand when to directly pressure the puck carrier and when to simply contain them. Generally speaking, when we outnumber our opponent (ie we have two defending players closest to one of their attackers) or they do not have clear possession of the puck, we want to pressure them hard.  If they have full possession and it’s a 1v1 battle (even numbers), you have to be a bit more conservative but still want to get stick on puck and body on body as quickly as you can. If they outnumber us (2 attackers to only 1 defender), you have to be in contain-mode – use your stick and body positioning to take away skating and passing options while you wait for support from your teammates.

Let’s look at a few specific examples of when you might have to make this pressure-vs-contain decision when playing without the puck:

On the fore-check:

We’re just going to talk about when you are the first player in on the forecheck here. I’m going to assume your team isn’t running a trap and that you are using either a 1-2-2 or 2-1-2 forechecking system – or some variation of one of those.  Generally, the first player in is going to pressure hard if the puck carrier’s back is to you and/or they don’t have clear possession of the puck. If they have full possession with their head up and are skating up the ice, you are going to contain. Please note that containing doesn’t mean that you don’t pressure at all. It means you’re slightly less aggressive, using your angling with your body and steering with your stick to force them to skate where you want them to go, instead of skating at them full-steam and having them fly right by you.

On the back-check:

In this example, we’re mainly focusing on the first forward coming back hard on the back-check.  Let’s say we outnumber our opponent on the back-check – so we’ve got a D defending the attacker 1v1 and a back-checker close to the attacker as well. In this scenario, we are in full pressure mode and we want our back-checker to catch the attacker, get the pin and allow our D to pick up the puck and start the regroup/attack. We sometimes refer to this as a pressure sandwich – the D closes the gap to pressure from one side and the back-checker skates hard to pressure from the other side.  If the opponent’s have full possession and outnumber us (so let’s say it’s a 2v1 against us and the back-checker can’t catch the puck carrier), we have to be a bit more conservative. This means that our D has to play it like a true 2v1 situation until the back-checker can gain inside positioning on their 2nd attacker. While the back-checker is working hard to gain that inside positioning, she is using her stick and body to take away east-west passing options on the 2v1 so that the D can focus a little more attention on the 1v1 situation.

In the defensive zone:

In the hierarchy of importance, understanding pressure vs contain is most critical in our defensive zone. If you are the closest defender to the puck carrier, and she’s doesn’t have full control of the puck or has her back turned to you, you want to pressure her hard. Get your stick on the puck and your body on her body and try to get that player/puck stopped on the wall if at all possible. It’s important to notice that our first defender isn’t trying to steal the puck (or at least that isn’t her primary focus). She’s trying to get the puck and player stopped so that our 2nd defender in can pick it up and initiate the breakout/attack.  If the opponent has full control and is skating at you with the puck, you have to ease off on the pressure a bit and look to contain. It doesn’t mean you back off pressure entirely, but instead you try to keep her in a small area of the ice by using a good stick and good body positioning while you wait for your 2nd defender to come in and support you. Once you have that 2nd player support, you can go back into full pressure mode.


These are just some very basic examples of that pressure vs contain read. There are countless more and they aren’t always black and white. No matter how complicated the situation, you must make sure that all your players understand this basic defensive concept or else you play without the puck will always look like chaos.  It’s great to pressure hard, but you must understand when it’s appropriate and how to do it probably, or else you risk looking like you’re running around like a chicken with it’s head cut off.


So share this with any coaches, teammates, friends who you think might benefit from it. I’ll be sharing some more key concepts that players & teams must understand in both play with the puck and play without the puck. If you have one that you’d really like me to address and write about, let me know and I’d be happy to send it out in a future message.


Work Hard. Dream BIG. Play Smart.


Your friend and coach,




Kim McCullough, MSc, YCS
Director & Founder, Total Female Hockey


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