Joining the Coaching Project as a guest coach is Nick Carpenito, Associate Head Coach at Northeastern University Women’s Hockey. Northeastern is a top program in the NCAA; this year falling just short of the National Championship in overtime vs. the University of Wisconsin.
Prior to coaching at Northeastern, Nick was an Assistant Coach at Union College and Elmira College. While at Elmira, Nick helped the Soaring Eagles win the 2013 DIII National Championship.
The rest of this post belongs to Nick. Enjoy!
What is a Soft Area?
While there may be other interpretations of where exactly in the offensive zone you would draw out these Soft Areas, within our program we designate the Soft Areas to be around the inside corners of both circles.
Why Attack the Soft Areas?
Soft Areas provide the opportunity to attack from multiple angles and from multiple players. Forwards can station themselves in any of the Soft Areas for quality scoring opportunities or to draw coverage and create opportunities for others. They can also get lost behind the net and position themselves in weakside Soft Areas. Defensemen can also drop into strongside Soft Areas for a quick opportunity or to free up more space in the slot area or drop into a weakside Soft Area and get lost behind the opposing team’s coverage. There are huge benefits to attacking these areas and when properly executed, your team will be very difficult to defend.
The opportunity to attack the Soft Areas primarily occurs when the origin of the puck is below the goal line inside the dots, or below the hashmarks when the puck is outside the dots. Last summer I watched our goals from the previous three years, when we really began to put a heavy emphasis on attacking soft areas, and saw that about 95% of our high soft area opportunities came off a pass from outside the dots. On the flipside, about 95% of our low soft area opportunities came from inside the dots.
Attacking the High Soft Areas
When the puck is outside the dots and below the hashmarks, a lot of teams are more concerned with containing the puck carrier and trying to push her back down the wall into the corner where she will run into heavy pressure from a pursuing forward or defenseman. In an effort to do this, the strongside defensive wing is typically looking to take away the low to high play from the puck carrier to the defenseman. To take away that lane, the wing needs to be about 3-4 feet away from the wall, with their stick towards the boards, leaving the lane to that high strongside soft area vulnerable.
If you are able to create opportunities from that high soft area, you have to assume that the opposing team will adjust to take those opportunities away. Chances are, one of two things are going to happen. Either they will slide their strong side wing into that high soft area passing lane, leaving the low to high opportunity wide open, or they may slide the weakside defensive wing to the player in the high soft area, which will create a lot more space in the slot area, and potentially allow your weakside defenseman to drop in for grade A opportunities.
Attacking the Low Soft Areas
Attacking the Low Soft Areas provide the opportunity for a quick attack, making it difficult for goalies to pick up the quick shot and at the very least, induce a quality rebound. A big key to creating a good opportunity is that the net front forward drops or pops into the soft area as opposed to stationing themselves in it. If an opposing player sees someone standing right off the front of the net, there is a good chance they will cover that player. With the puck inside the dots and behind the goal line, there is a good chance that there will be some defensive puck watching, so if the net front forward stays mobile, it’s very difficult for the defensive player to track both the puck and the net front player.
We put emphasis on having the player look for the high, far side shot when we create opportunities in these low soft areas. If the puck is below the goal line, you see a lot of goaltenders load up on that strong side post, some even stay low to take away the ice in the middle of the net with their inside foot. Low Soft Area shots need to be very quick plays so that in a lot of instances, the time to react is too quick for the goalie to reset and take away that high far side space, as you can see on the clips below. Worst case scenario, putting a quick shot low and towards the middle of the crease, which should be where far pad is, will create a quality rebound right up the slot.
In order to be effective in the Soft Areas, there are a few foundational skills that we emphasize with our players. The most important aspect of being effective in the Soft Areas is to keep it simple. We emphasize underhandling the puck, having a quick release, and looking to load up for the quick shot on reception of the pass. If a player isn’t square to the net, which she often isn’t as she’s in motion, rather than stickhandle into position, get the hips around the puck and snap it to the net. Accuracy is great, but the most important aspect of attacking from the Soft Area is to get to the puck to the net quickly before the goalie can set or the lanes to the net close.
To work on these skills in practice, much like the skill itself, keep it simple. Focus on the foundational elements of the skill, then progress. We keep it simple and give certain points of emphasis when shooting. The key points of emphasis being the load up, underhandle, and getting the hips around the puck. From there, we accelerate the release speed. We don’t even have our players in the soft areas for these shots until we progress it to the next stage. We have them master the shot, then we put them in the areas that the shot will be most effective.
Below is a simple drill that allows for a good amount of variation, such as where the puck originates, where players stand, stationary shooting or slight motion during the shot. Much like the skill itself, keep it simple. Pass it to the players up top from the players on the goal line, and execute whichever foundational skill you choose to work on.
To progress the skill, again, less is more. Below is a simple drill that will add more movement and provide the opportunity to the players to find certain paths to get into those Soft Areas. Passing Players or Coaches can call out the corresponding Soft Area, or the player can go in any order they want. Passes can come from alternating sides or all from one area. This drill creates a higher necessity to re-adjust the hips to get off a quick, quality shot, which is important to find a nice balance between a quick release and a powerful, accurate shot.
Once players have a good feel for the foundational elements and are doing well with a slight progression of those skills, the best way to allow the players to translate those skills is to provide them the opportunity to work on them is as close to game situation as you can. We play a game, brilliantly named, “The Soft Area Game”.
Since attacking the Soft Areas mostly come from below the hashmarks, we line up the players above the tops of the circles to minimize the space that those playing have to work. This is another drill that we progressed. At first we made a rule that it needed to be the same person in the circle for the whole repetition, the we progressed the game to allowing players to switch off, as long as one player is in that team’s designated circle. This progression really enhanced communication, but also allowed for players to attack those Soft Areas off of cycles, as well as attacking the Soft Areas as the puck carrier attacking off the half walls.
Teams must clear the puck through the person in their designated circle, where that player can immediately shoot or find an open player. Often times they will shoot of course, but if they make a pass, more times than not it’s across the Royal Road, which is a whole other concept that can be covered another time.
The clips below are from a presentation I did last summer for Optimal Hockey Development. It provides some additional explanation and you can see how we attack the Soft Areas in action. It’s important to note that this is just one way of creating offense. It’s one we’ve found success with at Northeastern, but every team has different personnel and go up against different defensive systems. Hopefully this information can allow you to add another element to your team’s attack, and allow you to pop in a few extra goals this coming season.
If the video doesn’t load on this page, you can watch on YouTube here.
By Nick Carpenito, Associate Head Coach, Northeastern University