Cashing In With Odd-Man Rushes In CHL Hockey

Originally published in Prospects Hockey in 2003

By Lucas Aykroyd

How do you feel when your bank tells you that your latest cheque bounced or that you’ve racked up a ton of service charges? A good hockey coach is just as annoyed when his team unnecessarily gives up an odd-man rush. At the same time, he knows that if they can turn it around and get their own 2-on-1 or 3-on-2, it’s a golden opportunity.

Outnumbered situations provide extra ice for offensive players to show off their shooting, passing, and stickhandling skills. But in today’s CHL, you have to pay your dues to generate those situations.

Usually an odd-man rush starts with a turnover in the neutral zone. That comes from playing responsible defensive hockey.

“You need to clog up the middle of the ice when the opposing team is going forward,” says Dean Evason, head coach of the high-scoring Vancouver Giants. “When you have people backchecking, you can pick the puck off, and all of a sudden you’ve got a 3-on-2 going the other way if everyone’s aware.”

Going hard to the net is a trademark of Canadian junior stars, from Jarome Iginla of the Kamloops Blazers to Dustin Brown of the Guelph Storm. This tactic can pay dividends on an odd-man rush.

“You need to have someone creating a distraction for the goaltender,” Evason explains. “That forces the defenseman to decide whether he should take the guy going to the net or let him go and play the puck carrier. Then hopefully that creates options for the goal-mouth pass, or the pass to the high man coming late. On a 2-on-1, it’s the same thing. You drive to the net and force the defenseman to make a decision.”

When a team is leading late in the third period, coaches often advise their players to shoot the puck on net when they get an odd-man rush. That’s to reduce the likelihood of an untimely turnover giving the other team an offensive chance.

But what about earlier in the game? Do you pass or shoot on a 2-on-1? Compare playmaking CHL graduates like Adam Oates or Andrew Cassels to triggermen like Claude Lemieux or Geoff Sanderson, and it’s obvious there are no hard and fast answers.

“I think it differs in terms of the individual,” Evason says. “Some guys always look to pass and other guys look to shoot the puck. We like our guys to be creative and allow them the freedom to make a decision.”

Smart players communicate verbally, yelling for the pass if they’re wide-open. They also strive to fool the opposing defensemen and goaltender. Dropping the shoulder and faking passes are two tactics Evason recommends.

Yet despite the best of plans, odd-man rushes obviously fail sometimes. And extreme outnumbered situations like 4-on-1’s or 4-on-2’s are often the least successful for the attacking team.

“Players try to get too pretty in those situations,” says Evason. “Instead of maybe a shot and a rebound, or one pass and a goal, often you’ll see two passes off a 4-on-1 because unselfishly the players want to get everybody involved. Many times you can be a little more selfish there and try to score yourself. That way, there’s a chance for a goal on a rebound.”

Meanwhile, if your team has let the opposition get an odd-man rush, your objective defensively is pretty simple: break the rush up and keep the puck out of your net!

Benoit Groulx, head coach of the defending QMJHL champion Gatineau Olympiques, gives his defensemen solid guidelines: “If the puck carrier is moving through the neutral zone, one defenseman should close the gap on him, and the other one should play the remaining 2-on-1 situation. Once the opposing team gets inside the blueline, we ask both of the defensemen to play the 2-on-1 on the puck carrier.”

Traditionally, a blueliner playing a 2-on-1 is told to focus on blocking the pass across and to let the goalie handle the shot. But nowadays, coaches may encourage him to take a more aggressive approach.

“I think in certain circumstances you can force the puck carrier,” says Groulx. “If the guy has a good angle to shoot and you let him do it, only paying attention to the pass, he may score. You have to read the play. Once the opposing team is past the hash marks and approaching the net, there’s no reason why your defenseman would not force the puck carrier. Of course, he should still try to block the passing lane.”

The goalie must focus on the puck carrier and prepare for a shot, trusting his defensemen to cut off passes. Goalies who overanticipate passes often end up getting victimized.

Forwards caught up ice need to get back and help out defensively. “You cannot let the other team have an odd-man rush and be able to jump on the rebound or a loose puck,” says Groulx. “It’s very important to get back hard in the slot in your own zone and protect the middle of the ice.”

Just how important are odd-man rushes overall? Important enough for Dean Evason to focus four drills on them at a typical 1.5-hour Giants practice. Important enough that Tomas Plihal’s 2-on-1 winning goal versus Guelph with 47 seconds left on May 21, 2002 gave the Kootenay Ice a huge boost en route to the Memorial Cup.

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