The Finer Points: Forechecking And Backchecking

Alex Semin of the Washington Capitals applies pressure on the backcheck to Derek Dorsettof the Columbus Blue Jackets. (clydeorama/Flickr)

By: Tim Kolupanowich, Executive Editor

One of the coach’s most important jobs is to create a system and that means a strong forecheck and backcheck. But what does that mean exactly?

To put them into their simplest terms, forechecking is the method used to gain control of the puck on offense and backchecking is the defensive play.

Forechecking is often more structured than backchecking and can be aggressive, such as the 2-1-2, or passive like the now-infamous 1-3-1. The numbers associated with a forecheck indicate the players that are in a certain area of the ice; the first number is how many are deep in the zone, the second is how many are in the middle of the zone and the last is how many are at the blueline, almost always the defensemen.

The systems can be set either high or low and can be started by bringing the puck into the zone or with the dump and chase.

Here is an example of the 2-1-2 in a match between the San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings. As you can see, there are always two Sharks down low, putting pressure on the defense and trying to gain control of the puck. The third forward stays high, waiting for a pass or to crash the net should one of the two goys down low be able to get the puck to the net.

Once the puck goes to the opposite corner, the high man chases it and one of the two down low becomes the new high man. This is what is known as the cycle and it’s how teams keep pressure deep in the offensive zone. Even when the defenseman pinches, a forward drops back to take is spot and the 2-1-2 keeps its form. This aggressive forecheck and strong cycle allows the Sharks’ fourth line to maintain possession for nearly 40 seconds.

Then there are more passive forechecks such as the aforementioned 1-3-1 that caused a stir earlier in the season in a game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers. The Lightning used a forecheck that revolved around them, well, notforechecking and waiting for the Flyers to come to them. The Flyers saw this and simply refused to move the puck up the ice.

In this system, the first man positions himself near the blueline, never entering the zone and waiting for the opposing team’s breakout to begin. There are three players lined up on the redline behind him and the fifth is way back in his own defensive zone. How this works is the first man pushes the play towards one side of the ice where the puck-carrier is surrounded by the three who were waiting at the redline, forcing him to dump the puck into the zone. The fifth man is there, waiting for retrieve the puck far before anyone on the opposing team can get to it and quickly begin the breakout up ice.

These systems that wait for the opposing team to come to them before capitalizing on turnovers are known as the trap.

There are more strategies than those two, but they all follow the same basic philosophy.

Backchecking is all about getting back on defense in a timely manner. A common knock on both young and offense-minded players is their lack of backchecking, usually criticized by how lazy they are following the play into their own zone.

And it is not just getting into the zone when you happen to get there, it’s getting back as fast as possible in order to avoid an odd-man situation and keeping your head on a swivel to pick up the open man.

The defensemen have it easy. Once the opposing team’s breakout starts, they simply back peddle to their respective posts. The first forward back will take the front of the net while the other two forwards will take the pointmen with all players attempting to stay between their man and the net.

The biggest key to a backcheck is never giving up on the play, even if the player on offense has a clear breakaway. Here is an example of Vancouver Canucks left wing Jeff Tambellini negating a breakaway by Martin Erat of the Nashville Predators with a strong backcheck. Tambellini sees the odd-man situation, in this case a clear breakaway, and is able to eliminate the threat and what was going to be a very good scoring chance for Nashville just a few moments earlier.

It’s that simple, a forecheck creates offense and a backcheck applies defensive pressure.

*Editor’s Note: Hockey is a very fast-paced game and the large number of sometimes-complicated rules can make it hard to follow for a casual/new viewer. The Finer Points is a weekly column that will explain the subtleties and complexities of hockey in an easy-to-understand manner so fans can spend more time enjoying the game and less time trying to figure out what is going on.  

Is there a facet of the game that has you scratching your head? Send an email to to get a clearer picture of what is happening on the ice.



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