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Reacting to Support the Breakout

Reacting to Support the Breakout

Excerpt From: Hockey Plays and Strategies

All three forwards have key positional responsibilities on the breakout. Breakouts are initiated by the defense, and most of the time the primary role of the forwards is to provide support options. The option of having forwards leave the zone early may be a team philosophy or a coaching philosophy, but it is worth considering allowing your wingers to leave the zone early on certain breakout plays – especially since the red line was removed from the game at all levels. The key read for wingers is puck possession and checking pressure; once you see your defenseman or center get the puck under control with minimal forechecking pressure, then move out into the neutral zone and look for the stretch pass (figure 1.1). The pass does not have to be a direct pass; it could be an indirect pass off the boards where the winger can skate into it. This type of strategy is intimidating for the opposition because they will generally move at least one of their Ds back and often they get caught with a soft or loose gap in the neutral zone. They will definitely be worried about giving up a breakaway and as a result may not hold the blue line as tightly. The space between the attacking players and defensive players is generally referred to as the gap. On offense, a loose gap gives you a chance to make plays in front of the defensive team and have more time. The defensive team wants to have a tight gap to eliminate time and space.

Figure 1.1 Leaving the zone early on the breakout.

 Fig. 1.1


The center usually plays low in the defensive zone, but as noted under the section on defensive zone coverage, any forward could be the low player. The player who plays low defensively is usually very good in coverage and breakout situations. Often the low forward is involved in getting the puck back from the opposition, so other than a dumped-in puck, his position on the breakout will seldom vary. The low forward provides the defense with a mid-ice option on all breakouts. If the puck is passed up the boards, then he is in a support position for the winger, who may bring the puck inside, make a direct pass, or chip it off the boards. The center or low forward must be available for the pass but also in a position to react defensively if there is a turnover.

When passes are made up the boards, centers need to come from underneath the pass and skate into a support position. It is important to be cautious in this position because anything could happen, and if a turnover occurs during the breakout, the center of low forward must be ready to defend.

Strong- Side Winger

The strong-side winger on the breakout must be available on the boards for a direct or rimmed puck. We like the winger to be in a higher position above the circles so that the pass from the defenseman or center advances the puck as far up ice as possible. If the other team pinches or closes down on the winger as the pass is being made, then it is important for the winger to fight the battle up higher on the boards. He can try to box out the pinching defenseman by backing into him as the puck is being passed up. If the winger starts the breakout lower on the boards and not up higher as suggested, then it will take more time and potentially more passes to get over the blue line, which often results in turnovers. The winger must be strong in all board battles because a turnover here may be costly and lead to extended time in the defensive zone and often an opportunity for the opposition to create scoring chances.

Back-Side Winger

The back-side winger on the breakout may skate on of the three routes:

  1. As the puck advances up the far side, the winger may move across for support and a pass or move to a puck that is chipped off the boards into the neutral zone. The winger coming across creates more options than the winger staying wide, and the success of this strategy relies on short passes or chip plays. Short passes or chip plays are definitely easier to execute than long cross-ice passes, which are often intercepted.
  2. As the puck advances up the far side, the winger may stay wide so that they avoid checking pressure from the other team. This wide pass is more difficult to make but once made usually provides more skating room for the winger because he will be on the outside shoulder of the opponent’s defense and can drive in the wide lane.
  3. Because of the elimination of the red line a few years ago, some coaches like to give the green light for the wide winger to leave the zone early and be available by moving in the neutral zone.  This is effective because the opposition will have to back on of their defensemen out of the zone, and as a result the back-side winger can move into open ice much easier as the pass is made. The only problem with doing this is that playing four on four in your defensive zone is more difficult than five on five.


In most leagues goaltenders are restricted in the area they are allowed to handle the puck. At the NHL level, goaltenders may handle the puck anywhere above the goal line and in the trapezoid area below the goal line. Regardless of the level and restrictions, it is important that goaltenders learn to pass the puck up on line changes (figure 1.2), set the puck up for defensemen, and move the puck by forechecking pressure to a waiting teammate or to an area where teammates can get the puck first. When going out to play the puck, goaltenders must check their options first and then listen to the communication of teammates in order to make the best decision. Strong, confident puckhandling goaltenders are very valuable to a team because they provide an extra breakout player and often save the defense from getting hit by the fore-checkers. Also goaltenders are always facing up ice, so they see options sooner. The only problem with goaltenders handling the puck is that their passing ability is usually not as good as a defenseman’s because of their restrictive equipment.

Figure 1.2 Goaltenders must learn to move the puck.

Fig 1.2


Coaches may have a different philosophy on this, but we believe the defense should be prepared to move into the breakout once a successful pass is made. Some coaches believe the defensemen should “stay at home,” or always keep the play in front of them. This is a sound philosophy but significantly eliminates attack options. The key is a successful pass. The defenseman who jumps into the breakout should be the back-side D, while the puck-moving D holds a more defensive position after making the pass (figure 1.3a). The back side D is in a better position to read the play because he is not involved in retrieving the puck and is generally waiting at the net for the play to develop. Sometimes in defensive zone coverage and in other breakout situations the center is caught low, so it is imperative that the net defenseman be ready and available for a breakout pass (figure 1.3b).

Figure 1.3 (a) the defense joining the breakout and (b) the center caught low.

Fig 1.3

In game situations it is also common to get the puck while in defensive zone coverage and then have to initiate a breakout. Using the calls over, up, wheel, and reverse, and rim players must read and react to the quickest escape option. Often when the defensive team recovers the puck down low, the best option is to break out by moving the puck away from pressure to the backs ide D and up the other side. By breaking out on the back side, you take the puck to an area with less traffic and generally less checking pressure (figure 1.4).

Defensemen, especially young ones, must learn to make a strong first pass. Coaches and parents often yell to defensemen on the breakout, “Get the puck out!” What they mean is to keep the puck going up the boards or shoot it off the glass. Just do whatever you can to get the puck into the neutral zone without turning it over. At times in a game this may be the appropriate action but generally you want the defense to learn to read the play and make a tape to tape pass. It is important for defensemen to learn to make plays by picking the best option on the breakout. Sometimes the best play is an inside pass to the center or a backside play to your partner because 80 percent of teams on the fore-check take away the boards; therefore, if you use the board option you are essentially passing into traffic and possibly creating a turnover. The old saying of “never pass in front of your own net” should be thrown out the window because that is sometimes the only option, and you don’t want to be predictable.

Figure 1.4 Breakout from a defensive alignment.

Fig 1.4

Continue Reading: Breakout Plays

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