If I have learned anything from interacting with hockey fans over the years it is that they are looking for deeper discussions about the sport’s x’s and o’s. Instead they are left with the media throwing around vague terms like “they’re a puck possession team,” a “north/south team,” or a “defense first team” to describe the differences between coaching philosophies. Rarely do they explain what any of it really means. That’s why today’s post is a lesson in hockey systems, specifically forechecking.
There are five forechecking strategies NHL coaches will generally employ.
1-4 (conservative trap)
The most conservative forecheck is the 1-4, also known as the trap. This has been a staple of the Boston Bruins since Claude Julien has taken over. The 1-4 consists of one forechecker in deep and four skaters lined up along the blueline forming a four man wall to prevent the opposing offense from advancing into the neutral zone. Essentially you have four skaters playing defense.
The 1-4 is designed to prevent rushes and breakaways towards your goaltender, which is why guys like Thomas, Bryzgalov and Rinne will sometimes put up ridiculous stats in certain games. They’ll rarely face odd-man rushes.
It should be noted that teams won’t use this formation for an entire game. Post lockout, teams will only use this forecheck in certain game situations. Some teams will trap late in the period, others will trap only when they have the lead, while some teams will trap solely based on where the puck is located in the offensive zone. Gone are the days of teams trapping for an entire 60 minutes.
1-2-2 (conservative trap or moderate forecheck)
One of the most common forechecking strategies is the 1-2-2 system. Their exact positioning can vary by team, but typically the 1-2-2 consists of one forechecker down low, two forecheckers high and two defensemen back in the neutral zone. Some teams move this formation up into the OZ to be more aggressive, while others push it back in the NZ to be more conservative. Either way, the basic idea of the 1-2-2 is to funnel the offensive team to the outside and away from center ice.
As the offensive team starts to move up the ice, the high forwards will cut off passing lanes by staying in a box+1 formation (see above). If the puck carrier passes to the wall options, the defensive wingers can move in and try to cause a turnover. If the puck carrier elects to skate through center ice, this four man box collapses around the puck carrier eliminating his space to maneuver. A turnover is usually what ensues.
The Devils have utilized variations of this system for the better part of two decades. Thanks to their success, many teams have adopted this system when they have a late lead.
1-3-1 (conservative trap or aggressive forecheck)
The 1-3-1 is a newer forecheck, which has been Guy Boucher’s concoction down in Tampa Bay. The 1-3-1 is interesting because it can be both an aggressive forecheck or a neutral zone trapping scheme depending on where the puck is located.
Generally in the 1-3-1 schematic, the first skater into the zone steers the puck toward the outside, the right side defenseman skates along the wall with two forwards to his left and the left-side defenseman trails the play (as seen above). This system generally causes the opposing team to **** up their defensive assignments since you have four skaters down low attacking the puck in waves.
The main difference between this tactic and others is the number of forecheckers. If the puck is in deep with two opposing skaters cycling, most teams are sending in 1 or 2 forecheckers, this formation calls for three. If there are three skaters cycling in their own zone, this system needs 4 forecheckers. The goal is to outnumber the other team on the puck at all times.
Tampa will also use this same formation in the neutral zone as a more passive forecheck and set it up like a trap. For more of an in-depth look at that approach, please see my post here.
2-3 Left Wing Lock (moderate or aggressive forecheck)
The Left Wing Lock looks like a basic 2-3 formation where once puck possession changes in the offensive zone, the center and right winger forecheck the puck carrier aggressively and the left winger heads to the half-boards to give the low forwards a high option should they recover the puck.
If the forecheckers do not retrieve the puck, the left winger can move back in line (or top of the circles) with the two defensemen to form a three man wall (as seen above). Like other schemes, this is designed to force the puck to the boards and stand up the attack at the blueline.
Post lockout, few teams still use a left wing lock. The few teams that still use it tend to stagger the two low forwards, so it actually looks like more of a 1-1-3. However, the same responsibilities still apply.
What’s great about this system is that there is always an offensive player used as a defensive safety valve. This allows your best skaters to be aggressive, but whenever there is a possibility of a transition from offense to defense, immediately you have a third guy high to eliminate odd-man rushes in your goalie’s direction.
The Red Wings didn’t invent this style, but they were known to popularize it during the 1990’s. Today, the Flyers, Senators, Wings, & Islanders will use it in certain game situations in recent seasons.
2-1-2 spread (aggressive forecheck)
A more aggressive forecheck, the 2-1-2 spread, should be known to all Rangers fans, since this has been John Tortorella’s bread and butter for most of his career. The aim is to create turnovers down low by pressuring opposing defenses.
In the 2-1-2 spread, once the opponent takes the puck behind his net, a forechecking winger moves from the right to flush him out. The other winger then moves from the opposite side and forces the enemy skater to get rid of the puck.
The mid-level forechecker (F3), moves into the high slot, with tertiary support from the defensemen. Some coaches use a variation of this forecheck where F1 and F2 approach from the same half of the ice, rather than spread out like the image shown above.
In this system the defensemen have to pinch and move up into the zone to confront the puck carrier and act as fourth forecheckers. They will often be positioned atop the circles as opposed to back at the blueline. This helps to keep the puck pinned in the offensive zone when opposing players throw the puck hard around the boards.
Since everyone is hunting for the puck in this system, it is crucial that all of your players can backcheck, which is probably why guys like Mara, McCabe, etc. are all no longer on the Rangers roster.
Now obviously forechecking is just one aspect of a hockey system, but I think this is plenty for you to digest for one day. For more on hockey systems, special teams formations and coaching philosophies (such as the reasoning behind line tinkering and getting the right matchups), please click on their respective links.