In my opinion, the neutral zone is the most important zone in hockey.
By playing well defensively, you are stifling the other team putting yourself in a position to either create turnovers and transition or force your opponent to dump the puck with an opportunity to break it out.
Offensively, you’re looking to create speed and opportunities to make plays on the rush.
Transitioning fast can lead to odd-man rushes or if the other team gets set in their structure, your play in the neutral zone can lead to zone entry opportunities or at worst placing the puck into spaces where you can win races to the puck.
The one aspect of the neutral zone that I’ll write about in this post is creating habits to skate the puck through the neutral zone effectively.
I’ve always been a big believer that puck support and passing is the most important attribute to creating offense through the neutral zone, but if a player has time and space to skate this will show some good habits of how to be effective.
It boils down to 4 main things:
- Change of speed
- Change of direction
- Getting off the wall
1. Change of Speed
A main goal of a defender in accepting a rush is to match your speed. If they’re able to match your speed, they can better angle, gap, and play you 1v1.
By changing speeds, it causes that defender much more difficulty in matching yours. It can put them off balance, negate their gap, and allow you to pounce when they get too much on their heels or toes.
2. Change of Direction
When teaching defenders how to accept a rush, most coaches will talk to them about limiting their crossovers. Gap, angle, keep the player to the outside and be efficient with their feet.
By changing direction with crossovers up the ice, it causes the defender to have to move laterally as well. As soon as they crossover – BOOM! – there’s your opportunity to put on the burners and gain speed to go around them.
You very rarely see players at the highest levels stride up the ice in a straight line. Most are crossing over the whole time.
3. Getting of the Wall
Going along with the change of direction, getting the puck off the wall is HUGE in dictating the play on your terms offensively.
Again, a defender wants to angle you to keep you to the outside. But by threatening the middle of the ice, you are keeping the defender honest and dictating the angles by which they can play.
Now you are a dual threat, as you aren’t just skating in a straight line down the wall (which is really easy to defend).
Using your upper body and eyes can be very effective skating the puck up the ice.
By looking and using your shoulders to make it look like you are going one direction, and then going the other, it allows you to gain time and space as the defender hopefully will take the bait and shade or bite towards where they think you are going.