Hockey is full of complex slang and jargon. If you're new to hockey, you may hear other fans or announcers referring to some of this jargon and end up confused. Here at BSHockey, my main goal is to end that confusion with comprehensive articles that explain concepts in-depth but are easy enough for anyone to understand.
In this article, I will go over the complexities of the hockey forecheck, including what it means, some strategies that teams deploy, and what impacts a forecheck.
With that said, let's jump right into it.
Table of Contents
What does a forecheck mean in hockey?
Forechecking in hockey refers to putting pressure on the opposing team in their defensive zone in an attempt to get them to turn the puck over and create an offensive opportunity.
Instead of allowing the opposing defenseman to retrieve the puck deep in their defensive zone and make an easy breakout pass to one of their forwards, an aggressive forecheck by a team can end up making the defenseman act quicker, which ultimately will result in more mistakes and turnovers.
What are the basics of forechecking?
There are some key basics of forechecking that, regardless of strategy, every team must follow to succeed. Let's go over them.
A forecheck is not going to be effective unless there is clear communication between the players, both forwards and defence. Because hockey is a fast-moving game, players must know their role based on the current position they find themselves in when entering the offensive zone.
This can be done by their other linemates communicating the situation around them. A second set of eyes, you could say. This would allow the player to make better decisions, resulting in more turnovers and scoring opportunities.
Communication isn't just on the ice, however. The players must communicate effectively with each other and the coach while on the bench. If a coach spots a flaw in the opposing team's defensive structure, they could relay that to the players and develop a strategy to exploit it.
Pressure the puck carrier
A forecheck will be inefficient if you do not apply pressure to the puck carrier. Give the puck carrier time and space to make a decision with the puck, and they will make fewer mistakes and ultimately clear the puck out of their defensive zone easier.
However, strong pressure on the puck carrier is an important forecheck element. When you do this, the player with possession of the puck has less time to think of where to place it. As a result, defenders could panic, cough up the puck to an opponent and give up a scoring chance.
Typically during a forecheck, you will press the opponent's defenseman, as they often retrieve the puck in the corners and attempt to make a passing play to one of their wingers on the boards, the centreman coming down, or their defensive partner.
This is why the puck-moving ability of a defenseman in today's NHL is one of the most essential skills to have. A defenseman who tightens up or can't think quickly under pressure will turn the puck over and become a liability to an aggressive forecheck.
Blocking passing lanes
Typically, during a standard forecheck, you will have a single player pressuring the opponent's defenseman. However, you have five players on the ice. So, what do the other four do?
Primarily block the passing lanes of the opposing team. Remember, the objective of a proper forecheck is to make it difficult for the opposing team to exit their defensive zone with the puck. By blocking off passing lanes, you increase the chances that the opposing team makes a mistake and causes a turnover, as there are fewer options for them to utilize.
How do you defend against a forecheck in hockey?
Now that we know the basics of a hockey forecheck, we can speak on specific ways defending teams can outmaneuver a forecheck and get the puck out of their zone. We'll talk on more specific forechecking strategies later; this is more the general concept that defending teams must utilize to outwit their opponents regardless of the type of forecheck deployed.
Smart hockey sense and quick decision making
More often than not, a forecheck begins with the opposing team making a dump-in of the puck and pressuring the defenseman, who returns to retrieve it. As a result, for a team to survive a forecheck, whether passive or aggressive, the defenseman needs a high hockey IQ and the ability to make quick decisions under pressure.
Support from forwards
Defensemen will be handling most of the pressure regarding the forecheck. So, the forwards need to come back deep into the zone in an effort to mitigate that pressure. A lazy backcheck leads to the defenseman having few options to move the puck or forces them to rely on long breakout passes, which have little chance of success.
To defend the forecheck, wingers must come back deep into the zone, and the centerman must assist the defence in breaking the puck out.
Often, the best way to defend against a forecheck is simple breakouts. What is meant by this is instead of making the long breakout pass that looks pretty, make a short chip off the boards or a short 5-foot pass to a winger or defensive partner. To relieve pressure, teammates must put themselves in a position where their teammate with the puck always has the option for the easy pass that succeeds nearly 100% of the time.
An alternative to making the pass to another teammate during good forechecking would be simply chipping the puck out of the zone, either off the glass or on the ice, to make the opposing team vacate the zone and attempt to gain it again.
What do F1, F2, and F3 mean in a forecheck?
Players are often designated a specific position at the faceoff dot and on the stat sheet. Left-wing, right-wing, center or defence. However, at least in more competitive hockey leagues, all that changes on the ice. This is where the F1, F2, and F3 designations come from.
Regardless of whether or not you're a center, winger, or defenseman, if you're the first player to pressure the puck carrier, you're the F1. The F1 forward will typically be deep in the zone, pressuring the defenseman.
The job of F2 is to stay slightly higher but be prepared to pressure if the opportunity arises and stay alert for any free pucks or rebounds.
And finally, the job of the F3 is to stay higher and play a more defensive role. The F3 will typically hover above the faceoff circles and be one of the first players outside the defenseman on the backcheck. They will also typically cover for a pinching defenseman when the puck is along the boards.
How many forechecking systems are there?
There are numerous forechecking strategies. However, a lot of those are deviations made by coaches based on their team's player makeup and skills. In this article, I'll review the standard forechecks and their meaning.
I'll work my way from the most conservative to aggressive.
The 1-4 and 1-3-1 forechecks
The 1-4 and 1-3-1 forechecks are often called the left wing lock or the neutral zone trap. They are the most conservative style of forechecks. They have historically been deployed in the playoffs or regular season when teams are protecting a lead. However, in recent times, these forechecks have fallen out of favour. You rarely see teams deploy the 1-4 forecheck consistently, and the 1-3-1 is only used by a few teams.
With this forecheck, there is a single player that pressures the puck carrier while the four remaining players stay in the neutral zone. This makes it nearly impossible for the opposing team to generate any speed out of their zone. This is because the 1-4 will typically stack four players on the blue line to block any offensive potential, while the 1-3-1 will place three players on the blue line and one at the red line.
The image depicts the 1-4 forecheck. For the 1-3-1, imagine that instead of 4 players at the blue line, one goes back to the red line.
The 2-3 forecheck
The 2-3 forecheck is more aggressive than the 1-4 or 1-3-1 but is still a relatively conservative forechecking style.
Instead of sending just one forward in, the team will send F1 and F2 into the zone to pressure the opposing team. At the same time, F3, instead of being in the high circle like we'll go over in other forechecking styles, is placed at the blue line. This is in an attempt to prevent odd-man rushes and breakouts with speed if the forecheck from the first two forwards is unsuccessful.
The 1-2-2 forecheck
The 1-2-2 forecheck is arguably one of the most common forechecks you will see in hockey today. This is the first forecheck we've talked about that utilizes all three forwards in an attempt to gain control of the puck. However, only one forward is overly aggressive in this strategy.
This is in an attempt not to get caught out of position and give up odd-man rushes if the forecheck fails. Typically, one forward will pressure the puck carrier. At the same time, the other two forwards stay higher in the zone and pounce on opportunities once they feel the forecheck from the initial forward will be successful.
The 2-1-2 forecheck
The 2-1-2 is traditionally more aggressive than the 1-2-2 because it sends two forwards to pressure the opposing team's defenseman. This type of forecheck has higher risks but higher rewards, as there is a higher likelihood the defenseman will turn the puck over in a higher-pressure situation. Still, it also leaves the forechecking team's defenseman vulnerable if the forecheck fails.
The third forward will typically hover in the high circle, creeping in only when they are sure to have a scoring opportunity or possession of the puck. They are the first forward back on the backcheck, and their goal is to reduce or eliminate odd-man rushes into their offensive end by the other team.
This is the most aggressive form of forechecking I'll speak on this article, although more aggressive versions do exist. Most of them will be deployed when puck retrieval is absolutely necessary, primarily because a team is down a bunch of goals in a game. A team could run a 3-2 forecheck, where the tactic is to swarm the puck carrier to turn over the puck. This type of forecheck often leads to successful transitions out of the zone by the opposing team and odd-man rushes and is a high-risk, high-reward strategy.
What type of forecheck do teams use the most?
Every coach, especially those very knowledgeable about the game, will choose a forechecking style that suits their team. A defensively-minded team with a quick transition game may choose to play the 1-3-1 strategy, knowing that they are good enough defensively to be patient on offence and pounce only when the time is right.
Alternatively, a team who believes they can outscore their mistakes due to a high-powered offence, or has a lot of faith in the talent of their defenseman, may choose to deploy the 2-1-2 forecheck to outscore their opponents aggressively.
Keep in mind forechecking can change on a per-line basis as well. Different forechecking systems may be utilized by a coach when the first line is out on the ice versus the fourth line.
What is the backcheck in hockey?
The backcheck is the complete opposite of the forecheck. Instead of the forwards pressuring the puck carrier in their offensive zone, they are now a defending player, skating back to prevent the opposing team from scoring and succeeding in their forechecking attempts.
They are now responsible for blocking passing lanes, turning pucks over, and preventing a goal from being scored.