Hockey Positioning Primer: A Full-Play Breakdown of In-Zone Coverage

We finish up our look at positioning once play is established in the defensive zone by analyzing a full play from last season against the Anaheim Ducks.

Welcome back to our quasi-regular series on hockey positioning basics, this time to finish up the set of articles on positioning once the the play is established in the defensive zone.

This post was originally scheduled for the end of last week, but then Jason Spezza, Trevor Daley and Jamie Benn combined for a brilliant game-tying goal in Pittsburgh, so it took a back seat. But this breakdown, the final one I'll likely do with plays from last season, brings into effect everything we've talked about so far in terms of in-zone defensive positioning. We'll talk mostly about the low three, but winger positioning also is very important.

To catch up on previous installments, look more at winger coverage here and here and the low trio here. Today, to make this simple, the wingers stay in winger position while the center is the low forward with both defensemen back. It's so nice when they make it straightforward.

To see the play in question today in moving pictures, check out this link.

Otherwise, lets take a look at how everything can be going well until a couple little lapses in concentration lead to key breakdowns.

The play starts as the puck is dumped down the wall to Patrick Maroon, who is well covered by Sergei Gonchar. Jordie Benn is keeping an eye on Emerson Etem in the face off circle, and Vernon Fiddler has half an eye on Daniel Winnik behind the net. Since Winnik can't score from there and would have to make a move or move the puck to be dangerous, he's allowed to remain uncovered.

You can barely see Antoine Roussel's stick at the top of the screen - he has the near point man while Ryan Garbutt is a little too low but in a good lane to cover the near point man.

Roussel enters the picture here, and while Maroon has a half-step on Gonchar, the Stars are still in good defensive position. Fiddler is making a more aggressive move toward Winnik now that it looks like Maroon could reverse the puck. Garbutt is still a touch low.

A couple issues are emerging here. The first is that the half-step Maroon has on Gonchar isn't going to allow him to turn to the net, but it is allowing him to see the open passing lane that results from Garbutt's low position. Jordie Benn is also not quite aware enough of Etem, who is really wide open for a shot. Benn appears to be a little fixated on the puck rather than being aware that Etem has shifted.

Benn's corrected that here as Maroon decides to head for that far point. While I personally would like to see him closer to Etem, even lifting his stick if necessary, Benn might feel that's too far away from the all-important net front. It's a judgement call, and he's back in a shooting lane, so I see what he's thinking.

You can also see how Fiddler's identified Winnik and how Garbutt sees exactly where this puck is heading.

The amusingly named Hampus Lindholm now has the puck at the point, and Garbutt's initial low position is giving him lots of time and space to shoot. Benn is drifting over into the passing lane to block the shot and Etem is headed there to try and tip it.

Off-screen, Gonchar still has Maroon tied up, and Fiddler still has Winnik identified as his check, though he's giving him some space.

This is a terribly blurry schreenshot, but I wanted to illustrate how the Stars have identified their checks. Garbutt's attempting a shot block, Roussel has the far point, Benn is locked up with Etem, Gonchar is locked up with Maroon and Fiddler is at least in the neighborhood (though not within a stick length) of Winnik, who popped out in front of the net.

In all, the positioning is still decent. You'd like Fiddler closer, but he's recognized his man at least.

Coaches often want their defensemen to body up on players, and Gonchar and Benn are doing just that as Winnik is collecting the rebound off the back boards. Things are still okay here, even if you'd like Fiddler closer to pressure Winnik into having to make a difficult play.

Here's where things are really going to start to break down. Fiddler is in the lane to prevent Winnik from taking a shot, but he's not close enough to cut off a pass. Gonchar still has Maroon contained, but Benn, who was quite literally trying to knock down Etem a moment ago, has lost track of the separation.

This is probably just puck fixation. He sees Winnik with a little space and wants to put pressure on him. But in doing so, he seems to have forgotten about the player in a more dangerous position - his former check Etem.

And here's where we see the momentary loss of containment from Jordie Benn and how that's gong to hurt. Fiddler's preventing a shot, but Etem has inside position and space from Benn. Maybe Fiddler could have been closer to prevent a pass in the first place, but the real positioning issue is that Benn lost his check for just a moment.

And that time and space afforded Etem ends up in the back of the Stars net. Again, you can see the separation he got from Benn in just a moment of puck staring here. Your positioning can be bang on, but a momentary lapse is really all it takes. It's part of why being a defenseman is such a hard job.

This play had a little bit of everything - wingers in decent position but perhaps a little too far in, a low trio doing a reasonable job at marking their checks but losing track for one crucial second. It's a good summary of overall positioning and how losing track of it for just a moment can be the fatal flaw.