Game 6: All About the Mindset

Like most people, I was impressed by the Blackhawks comeback win to clinch the Stanley Cup last night. Reflecting on the game and the win, I realized I shouldn’t have been that surprised. The Blackhawks won, not because of anything technical they did, but because of their mindset and approach to the game.

After the first period, shot attempts were 32-8 for Boston. Chicago was being outplayed – badly. But they went into the locker room only down by one goal. Mentally, they were in a pretty good spot. They knew they were outplayed, but they had the confidence that they were able to keep Boston at bay despite not having their best period.

After the second, the game was tied 1-1…a huge confidence boost for the ‘Hawks. They fought through two sub-par periods and after 40 minutes they were tied with an opponent who was outplaying them. As a coach and a team, this is a confidence builder. When you know you can hang with your opponent, you just have to keep fighting until you find your game.

When the Bruins took a one goal lead and time wound down, you could see the Bruins body language relax just a little. Tuuka Rask was playing well (again) and they had been the better team all night. Meanwhile, Chicago became a little more aggressive, working to get pucks in deep and go chase them. Being the aggressor builds confidence, as teams hate having to break out against a potent forcheck time and time again.

Finally, when Chicago broke through for the first goal, you could almost feel a huge momentum swing. The Bruins were trying to talk themselves off their heels and stop playing defensive, while the ‘Hawks were getting up and making plays. The pressure of the game had shifted to the home team and all Chicago had to do was put pucks on net and get to the dirty areas.

While execution and a few fortuitous bounces certainly helped, the mindset and mental approach that Chicago had throughout the game was the ultimate difference and why they were able to stage a miraculous comeback and put an end to such a great series after 6 game (and a few overtimes).

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How the Kings Won Game One

Body Position

“Control the body and you control the mind. Control the mind and you control the game.” – Chuck Grillo, Owner of Minnesota Hockey Camps and Former NHL Executive

Chuck is one of my mentors in both life and hockey. His words here sum up the game of hockey into two sentences.

Body positioning and body control are two of the most under-appreciated skills in the game of hockey. Watch any two games that happen at different ability levels and focus on how the players use their bodies. The better the player, the better he or she will use his or her body in a game. This is especially true at the NHL level. Pro players have exceptional body control and are the best in the world at using their bodies to gain leverage on the opponent and control the play.

Body positioning entails a number of little details. Getting in-between your opponent and the puck, using your shoulder and legs to shield the puck from your opponent and getting a lower center of gravity than your opponent all play a role in gaining proper body position.

Is there anything more frustrating in hockey than not being able to gain and maintain control of the puck? This is the second part of Chuck’s quote. Proper body position allows you to win battles and maintain puck possession, frustrating your opponent. Frustrated hockey teams get over-aggressive, desperately trying to take the puck away. How often do teams that are pinned in to their defensive zone for an extended period of time take a penalty? Pretty frequently. By controlling the body, you have controlled the mind, and taken control of the hockey game.

The next time you watch an NHL game (playoffs start Wednesday night!) notice how hard the players work just to get proper body position on their opponent. The puck will go to the corner and two players will lock up in the puck race, each attempting to gain leverage on the other. This is happening all over the ice, all the time. Body position is a huge part of an NHL hockey game.

Winning and losing hockey games often comes down to the little details. Understanding and mastering the concepts of body control and body positioning will allow you to have an edge over your opponent and the confidence to take control of the game.

Puck Management

I’ve read that in an average NHL game, the puck changes possession between 200 and 400 times. Thus the question becomes not if you are going to turn the puck over or lose possession, but when or where. No matter what sport you play you want to limit the number of turnovers you have, however hockey is just like real estate – location, location, location.

For the rest of this post, keep in mind that I am not advocating turning the puck over, merely discussing best case scenarios for changes of possession.

Generally speaking, the closer you get to the middle of the ice, the more dangerous a turnover becomes. Turnovers also become more dangerous the closer they occur to your net. Dumping a puck into the corner of the offensive zone away from your opponent is one of the least threatening changes of possession. It is away from the middle of the ice and far away from your own net.

Why do cross-ice passes in the defensive zone have a tendency to drive coaches crazy? Why do most coaches advocate for “glass and out”? Why do practices include drill activities such as “chip and flood” and “post-up”? Because plays on the walls in the defensive and neutral zone have the lowest chance of resulting in an immediate threat.

In the offensive zone, it is extremely rare to have a turnover behind the net to directly result in a chance against. However, how often do you see a D-man turn the puck over at the point and then see your opponent celebrating a goal? Losing the puck low in the zone gives your team an opportunity to recover and play cohesive defense. Giving the puck away at the point gives your opponent a huge transition opportunity.

Puck management in an offensive sense is all about putting the puck is a place that your teammate anticipates and can easily retrieve the puck. This includes concepts such as cycling, net front releases, high rolls, D-D plays and releases, posting in the neutral zone, smart dumps, hard rims, and many other plays. The prevailing principle is maintaining possession by playing the puck to space. Reading the play and anticipating your teammates is a major part of offensive puck management.

Puck management is a principle that is both a defensive and an offensive concept. Hockey is a flow sport. This means that everything that happens is simultaneously offensive and defensive in nature. Puck management is all about putting you and your teammates in the best position to maintain possession, regain possession, or play effective defensive hockey.

Watching the Blues and Red Wings game tonight, the Wings were struggling with their puck management decisions at the beginning of the first period. Early on, they were putting the puck in risky places and giving the puck away in places that represented a direct threat against their net. As they have improved their puck decisions, they have begun to play much better – limiting the chances of the Blues and beginning to control the play on the offensive end.

Improving your puck management is on of the surest ways to improve your game and improve your chances of winning. Puck management will allow you to control the game through possession and limit the chances of your opponent, giving you a great opportunity to win the game.