Last Change in Hockey – A Huge Advantage for the Home Team

Posted on February 28, 2024 by Dan Kent
Last Change in Hockey

The concept of 'last change' holds strategic importance for both home and away teams. 

This rule primarily allows the home team a significant advantage, as they have the right to make the final player substitutions after the visiting team has made its changes. 

This advantage is especially critical during stoppages of play right before faceoffs, enabling the home team to strategically select player matchups that could tilt the game in their favour.

What is the last change rule in hockey?

The National Hockey League (NHL) and other professional leagues utilize the last-change rule as a part of having a home-ice advantage. Coaches use this opportunity to deploy players best suited to handle the opponents currently on the ice, whether for offensive opportunities or to defend. 

As the away team must make its line changes first, the home team's coach can quickly analyze and respond with the most advantageous set of players, often influencing the outcome of key moments in the game.

Understanding the nuances of the last change can provide deeper insight into the intricacies of coaching strategies in professional hockey. It contributes to the intricacies between teams as they vie for control over the game.

How do they enforce the last change?

During a stoppage in play or the start of a period, the linesman will go to the center of the rink and raise their hand, looking at the visiting team's bench. The visiting team now has five seconds to substitute their players. After the players are on the ice, except in the situation of an injury, penalty, or equipment malfunction, players are not allowed to leave the ice.

After this is done and the linesman confirms the visiting team has made the substitution, they will stay at center ice and turn to the home team and allow them to make the substitution. 

After the home team makes their substitution, the faceoff occurs and the play proceeds. This is called ' last change ' because the home team is the second and last team to substitute players and can change their strategy based on what the away team has put on the ice.

If there is any sort of delay or what the referee believes to be an intentional delay, it will warn the offending team. If they keep doing it, they will be given a minor penalty for delay of game.

In my 25+ years of watching ice hockey, I have never witnessed a penalty called in this regard. It is a rarity, and hockey teams tend to follow the rule book when it comes to substitutions.

The only time a team would be able to swap players after the substitutions are made would be when the on-ice officials call a penalty before the puck is dropped.

The dynamics of the last change rule in hockey

Coaches utilize the last change rule to gain strategic superiority through player matchups and line changes, which can influence the game's flow and outcome. For example, if the home team is the attacking team, meaning the faceoff is in the offensive zone, they may put out their best-attacking players if the other team has iced their weaker players.

Some coaches don't believe in matching lines. However, most coaches in the NHL and other pro sports leagues utilize some sort of line matching.

The impact of last change for the home team

The last change rule allows the home team a significant advantage; they have the final decision on player deployment after a stoppage in play. 

This advantage becomes crucial during a faceoff in the offensive zone or defensive zone, where the simple matching of lines can turn the tide of a game.

A smart line change can disrupt the visiting team's strategy or counter a powerful shift, giving the home team possession and control over the puck.

Strategic use of line changes

Line changes are fundamental to hockey strategy. 

When line matching, there are multiple strategies a coach may be deploying. Lets go over them.

Protecting weaker players

This is often called "sheltering" a player and is done when a coach removes a weaker player from the ice when one of the opposing team's top lines comes off the bench. By sheltering the weaker player, the coach can get a better matchup and allow that player to play against the opposing team's weaker players as well.

Resting a team's star players

The top tier offensive players of a team will likely get the bulk of the minutes during a game. However, they do need rest. Line matching can allow a coach to put out weaker players versus weaker competition or top defensive players against the opposition's offensive players so that the team's star players can rest.

Putting a team in a position where it can deploy its star players whenever it wants is the most beneficial position to be in, which is why home-ice advantage has huge implications.

Shutting down the other team

A coach may have what is often called a "shutdown line", which is used to shut down the other team's players, primarily their top offensive players. By shutting down an opposing team's best-attacking player, the team can reduce the number of goals it allows.

You will often see this with a center and defenseman, meaning a coach will often tell a particular center or defence to cover a particular player.

Coach's role in player matchups

Coaches have the critical role of creating favourable player matchups. By observing the visiting team's line changes, they can deploy players that either counter the opponent's strengths or exploit their weaknesses. 

Specific player matchups in the offensive or defensive zones can swing the momentum and are often used to align a team's top defenders against the opponent's leading scorers.

Essential gameplay elements

Controlling possession

Possession control is vital for a team to dictate the game's pace. A team that maintains control of the puck is better positioned to set up offensive plays and mitigate defensive pressure. 

This is why a coach could potentially line match a particular center against an opponent's center who is particularly weak on the draw. After the ensuing faceoff, the coach could put the team's players out that he feels have the best chance to score now that they have possession.

This control allows a team to make a lot of key strategic decisions, such as when to engage in player substitutions or alter line combinations, based on the flow of the game and the current score.

Line combinations and pairing strategies

Mastering line combinations and pairing strategies is essential for responding to game dynamics and opponent tactics. 

Effective line combinations can optimize cohesion, leveraging strengths for offensive surges or defensive lockdowns. 

Additionally, smart pairing of players allows a team to capitalize on chemistry and skill sets, creating matchups on the ice that can swing momentum and influence the score.

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

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