Extra Man Down

That is, two or more players shorthanded. Time-serving penalties were abandoned early in tennis hockey’s history, but teams still often find themselves playing two or three players short. This occurs naturally when an odd number of players are involved and the teams are imbalanced; it also could occur because a player is lagging to return on defense or outright cherry-picking, or an untimely injury or curfew has suddenly altered the balance.

Playing even-more-shorthanded defense is, in a word, just like regular defense only more so. The zone principles become even more pronounced. If the situation is a temporary one (for instance, someone is wandering back on defense, or fancy has dictated a time-serving penalty) the defense might be content to mark time if it has the opportunity – swatting the ball to the side, surfacing it, buying time for the imbalance to end. (Surfacing forces both sides to line up on their own half of the court, so it is a good option when needed defensive resources are merely lollygagging.)

If it is a permanent scenario, the defense has some challenges that are not easily addressed in a treatise, and should be prepared to deal with the fact that it may have little chance to stop an effective offense from generating good scoring chances. How severe the disadvantage is will depend upon the actual numbers – if the game is 6-on-5, then the defense has four players (plus the goalie) with which to work, and can manage some effective coverage simply by staking out the center of the court in a box array. If it is 4-on-3, space will be wide open and each defender will have two attackers to watch. Even the on-ball defender in such a case should devote at least a modicum of attention to off-ball play, gambling on anticipation or quick reaction to check the offense. This situation stretches defensive resources toward the breaking point, a fact normally reflected at the team division stage when the shorthanded squad receives three of the better players.

If general remarks can be made, these are they: the shorthanded defense must become both more conservative and more aggressive. The greater its disadvantage, the more it should concentrate on covering the prime scoring real estate, and the less its interest in trying to force a turnover one-on-one at the net, or challenging a long shot if the shooter might just be setting up a feint. At the same time, the defense is called upon to be extremely opportunistic, to take calculated gambles, and to get the ball back as soon as possible – for the team with numbers holds a decisive edge as long as it holds the ball.

The goalie becomes a more important player: part of a defense’s strategy is always permitting certain shots (since not every possible shot can be accounted for) which the goalie can stop; when shorthanded, the goalie will need to stop more difficult shots in course. Too, the goalie must be aggressive about playing out of the goal, when a quick step out can cut off a feed, a lunge at a crossing pass can break up a play, or a well-timed charge for a loose ball can create a turnover. The goaltender’s vision and ability to read developing plays will be put to the test here; short-staffed teams should consider making a point to get their best goaltender in front of the net when the defense has an opportunity to organize.

Ball control is immensely more important to a shorthanded defense; when the numbers are even, a defender with the ball might play the percentages simply to throw it over the net and concede possession on less favorable terms. But a shorthanded defense should be more reluctant to resort to this play even though it may become necessary more often: the terms will not remain less-favorable for the offense for long. By the same token, a player who tips a ball to a spot where it is a 50/50 play is almost compelled to try his/her chances at gaining control; one who gains control with an attacker-cum-forechecker looming must prefer trying to control and clear if it is a possibility (now is the time to look for the cherry-picking teammate whose laggardly defense has inflicted this conundrum). When forced to give up the ball, the defense should maximize the rest it gets out of the stillborn clear: where feasible, dump it the length of the court and make the offense go get it; where this cannot happen, surface it decisively or even knock it out of the playing area to force a long stoppage.

Even Numbers

The converse of extra-man down, of course, occurs in an X vs. X-1 game where X-1 holds the ball and X has one defender for every offensive player plus a goaltender – as well as the many situations, regardless of number on the court, when offensive players aren’t joining the play.

Of course one could say that the defense is simply in a man-on-man situation, and not be too far from the actual practice of the game. It bears mention, however, that typically, an asymmetric division like this will concentrate stronger players on the X-1 team. Since tennis hockey is not likely to achieve the level of organization necessary to play a sophisticated “matchup zone” or the like, it is sufficient to remark that the defensive principles enumerated above do not lose their force under these circumstances. Defenders off ball should still sag away from their player, and play at least to some degree the space around them. All players should still communicate, and be prepared to help each other – if the X-1 team indeed is more skilled, help will be necessary, and good team play can maximize the less-skilled team’s advantage in numbers.

The defense becomes a great deal more flexible in these cases. Any on-ball matchup even somewhat favorable for the defense should be played assertively. Double-teaming becomes a more practical routine strategy. Communication, of course, makes all things possible.

It bears noting that the offense, while it might like to have every player actively attacking the goal, often cannot do this in safety. Conventionally, in a reasonably well-attended game, a team’s goalie will approach as far as the “point” (the gap between the two nets) and become a part of the perimeter offense while remaining in a position to retreat to the goal if the play should go the other way. Sometimes, goalies even remain in front of the cage voluntarily. If there is a player who is effectively not joining the offense, and the skill levels of the teams are somewhat even, the defense can avail itself of the simplicity of a one-on-one alignment. But remain aware: a passive-seeming point player might be waiting for the right moment to jump into the thick of the play, like an aggressive blueliner in hockey – a play that can create either a quick offensive threat, or the opportunity for the defense to create an uncontested fast break in its favor.