Maintaining a tight gap and containing speedy, skilled opponents isn’t easy. Former NHL’er and 1980 Miracle on Ice defenseman Mike Ramsey knows from experience.
After being traded from the Sabres to the Penguins in 1992-93, Ramsey remembered facing off against his old team, which included superstar Alexander Mogilny. Ramsey, like anyone who watched NHL hockey back then, knew Mogilny was a scoring threat every time he touched the ice.
“I got isolated on a 1-on-1 with him,” recalled Ramsey, a Minneapolis native and former Wild assistant coach. “I couldn’t have gone any farther back. I didn’t want to get beat 1-on-1, so I backed up and backed up. I ended up blocking his shot in our crease on the 1-on-1.”
That was the year Mogilny scored 76 goals.
“It’s funny. I remember how uncomfortable I was,” said Ramsey. “I didn’t want to get beat and I ended up backing into my own goalie because he was going a hundred miles an hour and I didn’t want him to blow by me.”
Gap control is key to strong defensive play, especially against top teams with speed and skill. How can you contain those teams and pull off an upset of your own? Ramsey offered some insight for young players.
What Is “Gap Control?”
Gap control is the amount of space maintained by a defending player on the puck carrier. The defending player wants to maintain a tight gap to limit the amount of time and space the puck carrier has. The puck carrier craves and thrives with time and space, which allows them to use their speed and skill to create scoring opportunities.
The less time and space you give the puck carrier, the better your chances are to disrupt their rush, regain possession of the puck and jump start your own team’s offensive rush.
Gap control is important all over the ice, not just for defensemen playing the rush into their own zone. It could be in the corners or in the neutral zone or even the offensive zone as you try to prevent the other team from breaking out. And it’s important for all players, not just the defensemen.
“You need to forecheck as five players,” said Ramsey. “If you don’t have a good gap, you can’t support the forecheck.”
Skating Skills Are Key
The key to being “comfortable,” as Ramsey put it, is being a strong skater. The better the skater, the more comfortable and confident they are in these situations.
“If they’re comfortable, they’ll play up,” said Ramsey. “They’ll play up and make it hard on the forwards to get going and get started.”
Strong skating doesn’t just refer to speed. It includes skating backwards, transitions, quickness (first three steps), stops and starts, edges, etc.
“That’s what you need when you have fast, skilled, shifty forwards that you have to contain,” he added.
Shrink the Ice
Every coach has a different term for it. For Ramsey, it’s ‘shrink the ice.’ Let’s say there is a scrum in the corner and the opposing team is looking to make a play or drive to the net. The defender’s job is to shrink the ice, without getting beat, and take their options away while potentially creating a turnover.
“You need to shrink the ice because you want to take away their time and space,” said Ramsey. “If the puck pops out of the corner, A, you can get the puck, and B, you can play the 1-on-1 from the corner instead of standing back and standing in front of the net and letting them walk in.”
And for defensemen preparing for the opposing team’s offensive rush, it’s important not to sag too far back.
“When the defense plays way back – what I call “playing center field” – that means they’re usually not comfortable with their surroundings,” said Ramsey. “When they’re comfortable, let’s say at the Bantam, high school or college and pro levels, they’ll usually be up tight on the forward and make it difficult on the forward to start the rush.”
And if a puck comes loose from a scrum or battle in the neutral zone (on the wall or near the blue lines), and the defensemen or forwards are 40 feet back, that puts the team in a vulnerable spot. They won’t be able to retrieve the puck, and if the opponent gets it, they’ll have a lot of time and space to gain speed and create scoring opportunities.
Use Your Stick
Your stick can take away time and space from the puck carrier. It can disrupt their stickhandling or even make them nervous and force them to make an errant pass or lose the puck. You can also guide the puck carrier with your stick – use it to funnel the player whichever way you want to push them.
“As a defenseman, I’d rather push the player up the wall and away from the net than push them towards the net,” said Ramsey.
Practice Makes Perfect
Incorporate drills or small-area games into your practice plans to simulate these gap-control scenarios. Practice 1-on-1 rushes. Put the defenders in uncomfortable positions (don’t let them start skating backwards until the forward gets close with speed). Set up 2-on-2s or 3-on-3s out of the corner. These force the player to read, react and try to shrink the ice.
“Usually the puck’s in the corner,” said Ramsey. “The offensive group usually has two or maybe three players in there. The defensive team usually has two players down there and the offside defenseman standing in front of the net just watching and reading. They have to shrink the area and create a good gap, because if the puck pops out, they have to be able to react to that puck and get it themselves or else play a 1-on-1 out of the pile.”
If they get beat, they get beat. That’s OK. That’s what practice is for. It takes repetitions and practice to find your boundaries and feel comfortable.
“These are all things that are easier said than done,” said Ramsey. “You feel a guy with a lot of speed coming at you. What do you do? You back up. I’ve felt it, too. When I was confident and on top of my game, I was up and tight. When I was off my game, I backed up. I’m sure the kids at the Squirt or Peewee level, they feel it, too. They know when they feel uncomfortable or their skating might not be as good and here comes a kid who’s skating a hundred miles an hour.”
There’s always room for improvement. Your opponents will get faster and more skilled as they grow. Keep practicing and get comfortable “shrinking the ice.”