Playing for Keeps: Protecting a Lead in CHL Hockey

Originally published in Prospects Hockey in 2003

By Lucas Aykroyd

Let’s face it. When your hockey team is fighting to maintain a 3-2 lead late in the third period, it’s tough on everyone’s bodies.

Players block stinging slapshots and grind it out along the boards. Coaches feel their heart rate increase as they pace and bark defensive instructions. Even in the stands, fans bite their fingernails when they’re not groaning: “Just get the puck out of there!”

Protecting a lead also presents a big mental challenge. This is where smart teams succeed. Peter DeBoer, head coach of the 2003 Memorial Cup champion Kitchener Rangers, preaches three important rules in this tactical situation.

“First, always be on the defensive side of the puck, keeping the other team on the outside, whenever there’s a battle for possession,” said DeBoer. “Second, keep the puck out of the middle of the ice, because you take away opportunities for turnovers and high-risk areas if you do that. Third, get the right matchups on the ice against the other team’s top players.”

Yet more is involved than just positioning and personnel decisions. We all know that sinking feeling when a team trails late in the game and it’s obvious from their body language that there’s no way they’re coming back tonight. How does a successful club gain a psychological edge over its opponents?

“To protect leads, you’ve got to be a team that has lots of confidence in those situations,” said Brent Sutter, head coach and GM of the Red Deer Rebels. “You’ve got to stay on your toes. You need to keep doing what got you the lead in the first place. In Red Deer, we take a lot of pride in playing well with the lead. It’s about staying with it and believing in your system as well as your teammates.”

During his NHL playing career, Sutter scored 102 points with the New York Islanders in 1984-85 and also participated in some of the wildest run-and-gun hockey ever in the 1987 Canada Cup finals. Could that have affected his philosophy in terms of giving his snipers free rein to pad their stats when the Rebels are up by a comfortable margin? No way. That’s not how Red Deer got to be the CHL’s best defensive team the last three years and captured the 2001 Memorial Cup.

“I’m never going to coach that way,” said Sutter. “Sometimes, you get an enormous lead and players have a tendency to relax or get away from the system. That’s when you start making mistakes or doing things that you’re not in the habit of doing, and you start giving up scoring opportunities. Things snowball pretty quickly from there.”

So playing for keeps means playing it safe. Slowing down the tempo is usually a good tactic, because opening up can give the other side hopes of getting back in the game.

“Taking whistles is part of it,” DeBoer said. “That includes freezing the puck or icing it at the right time, depending where the momentum’s at. But to do those things you have to be good on the draw, because there’s nothing worse than a lot of faceoffs in your end in the third period when you’re only winning faceoffs at 20 percent.”

After each drop of the puck, winning one-on-one battles and getting the puck deep in the other team’s zone as often as possible can seal your victory. When your team isn’t controlling the puck, you should force your opponents to skate 200 feet for their scoring opportunities.

“You try to keep your shots-against down and only give the other team low percentage chances,” Sutter said. “It’s about doing the little things right and paying attention to detail in all three zones of the ice. The bottom line is you want to make sure you’re up one goal at the end of the night.”

To hold on to a lead, it also helps to remember there are no sure things. You need to keep plugging away until the final buzzer sounds. If you don’t, anything can happen.

In the round-robin of the 2003 Memorial Cup tournament, DeBoer’s Rangers illustrated that point perfectly with their May 21 come-from-behind win over the Kelowna Rockets.

Going into the third period, Kitchener trailed 2-1 after surrendering a power play goal with just 13 seconds left in the middle frame. As if that wasn’t deflating enough, DeBoer did some research during the intermission. He found out Kelowna’s record when leading after two was 48-1 in the regular season and 13-0 in post-season play. In other words, the Rockets successfully protected leads 98 percent of the time.

But DeBoer wisely chose not to burden his players with this information, and they refused to lose. Kitchener scored three unanswered goals in the third period for a 4-2 victory that gave them a bye into the Memorial Cup Final.

The Rangers had already proved they knew how to protect a lead when they eked out a tight 3-1 win over the Plymouth Whalers in Game Seven of the OHL Western Conference Final. That’s what you’d expect from the current CHL champions.

Overall, protecting a lead has become a more key strategic concern than it was twenty years ago.

“I remember playing in the 1980’s, and protecting a lead then was probably not much more than making sure that your defensemen stayed back and didn’t jump up into the play,” said DeBoer. “The margin of error is so much smaller than it used to be.”

But for those who make physical sacrifices, work hard and play it smart, the rewards just keep coming, two points at a time. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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