In my opinion, defense is the most important skill in the NHL series and what will set you apart from the casual player.
People tend to learn how to score effectively before they learn how to play effective defense. In the early levels, it’s very easy to get by on just knowing how to score. Often you’ll play someone who hasn’t grasped scoring yet in which case you’ll easily outscore them and win the game.
However, when you get to the top tier of players, EVERYONE can score. Give someone room in the slot, goal… give up an odd man rush… goal, give up a breakaway… GOAL. You get the point. It becomes a lot more about limiting your opposition’s scoring chances than it does increasing your own.
Much like in real hockey, play solid defense and force your opponent to make the first mistake.
We’ll get more into advanced defense techniques in a later post, for now we’ll cover the basics – the building blocks, if you will.
Disclaimer: Post is written based on experience with the NHL 17 beta. Images are from NHL 16 – I’ll be updating this a week or two after NHL 17 officially releases to include any changes.
In order to use any of the following defensive techniques, you will first need your players to be positioned properly. Extremely important. While it’s very easy to blame the AI for being out of position… sometimes it’s true … if we re-wind the tape a little bit, often it’s ourselves taking the AI out of position and then switching to another player and taking them out of position and then switching to another… you get the point.
Don’t chase the puck! All you will end up doing is taking all your players out of position and leaving the slot – everyone’s favourite “glitch goal” opportunity – wide open.
Check out my NHL 17 Coaching Strategies post to find out more about where defense will be positioned and how you have them setup. Get familiar with your AI’s tendencies, no matter how ridiculous they may be, because unfortunately in all game modes(except 6v6 EASHL/OTP) you will be depending on them.
Beginner strategy in the defensive zone: Stick to controlling one player and let your AI play their positions. Trying to play all positions when you don’t know what each one is suppose to do is just a recipe for disaster. As you get use to each position’s purpose you can quickly jump between them all without taking them all out of the play.
Tip: Always stay between your net and the puck! Unless time is running out and you absolutely need a goal then you may have to take risks to force a turnover.
EA Sports NHL players have a very strong love/hate relationship with the poke check.
Many saying it’s overpowered, many saying it’s not, and the battle rages on.
Personally, in it’s current state as of the last half of NHL 16 and the NHL 17 beta, I’m very happy with it. There was a time you could chase someone on a breakaway WHILE poke checking and actually catch up to them… that was a little ridiculous to say the least.
Halfway through NHL 16 they nerfed the poke check so if you spam it, it will slow your player down. This update has carried over to NHL 17 as well.
How to do it: Tap RB(Xbox) R1(PS4)
When to use it: Your position relative to the player you are poke checking is very important here. It’s the difference between a successful poke check or sitting your ass in the box. See my grid below in the stick lift section to see the safer areas for stick checks. Essentially, don’t let your stick come in contact with your opponents skate. If you are getting too close to the player then a stick lift might be more effective.
Looking for more advanced poke check strategies? Check out the more recent Mastering Poke Check in NHL 17 post.
Example of an effective pokecheck:
Example of an ineffective pokecheck:
My personal favourite! Nothing more satisfying than stripping the puck away with a stick lift and then scoring a goal.
How to: Without possession of the puck, press “A”(Xbox) or “X”(PS4).
When to: First, make sure you’re close enough that you can reach their stick with yours then Imagine a 3×3 grid around a player like in the image below. If your player is inside any of the top 3 squares then your stick lift/pokecheck attempt will almost always be successful. If you are in the squares to the left or right of the opponent it’s more likely you will get a penalty and if you’re in any of the 3 squares behind the opponent it is very likely you’ll get a penalty. Of course, if your opponent is holding the puck out to one side than this changes things – be aware of where their stick is in relation to yours.
A key difference between poke checks and stick lifts is that with a successful stick lift your player is likely to gain immediate possession of the puck instead of having to chase it. So if given the opportunity for a stick lift in the offensive zone, take it! Even if you are in that orange grid zone, it will likely be worth the risk to catch your opponents scrambling to get back into defensive positions.
Everyone’s favourite way to separate man from puck. A devastating hit. Unfortunately, when playing skilled players this will often result in your opponent doing a quick deke or cut to rip by you for an odd man rush or even worse… a breakaway.
How to: Hitting is done by simply skating towards an opponent and pointing the right analog stick in their direction. There is some aim assist involved here so if you point the right stick in their direction a little early then it will “lock on” and usually help you connect with the hit.
When to: There are many different situations where hitting can be useful, we’ll cover a couple below.
Offensively: On the forecheck. If your opponent is trying to collect the puck in the corner, separate him(not from behind). Once they get proper control and gain a bit of speed, hitting becomes much more risky as you can easily just take yourself out of play.
Defensively: I know how tempting that open ice hit is… but it’s usually a terrible idea, if you ever play me then you will probably score a number of goals on me because I still go for it all the time 😀 it’s too satisfying when it connects!
Anyways, do yourself a favor and if you’re the last man back, then resist the urge! It’s never worth giving up a breakaway.
Learn your opponents tendencies. When opponents rush into your zone they usually do 1 of 3 things:
- Cut into the middle
- Stay wide
- Dump it in the corner(what?? Yes, people actually do this and it can be effective!)
It usually takes players awhile to adapt away from these habits so once you figure out what they do; abuse that knowledge to force a quick turnover and scoring chance the other way.
This goes for the offensive zone too. Do they usually skate it out or pass it out? Check out the coaching strategies(coming soon) for best ones to use for each situation.
This is one you need to be careful with because if it’s executed poorly then you end up just screening your goalie.
How to do it: RB(Xbox) R1(PS4) to go down to one knee OR both RB and LB(R1 and L1) to go flat on your stomach.
When to use it: There are a couple situations these can be effective.
Blocking pass attempts: The one knee is great for this as you also lay your stick on the ice and you get up much quicker than with the full lay down block. However, when blocking passes in a 2v1 situation, I usually go with the full stomach slide just to cover more area.
Blocking shots: This is the more risky situation that can easily lead to the exact opposite of what you intended, the puck in your net. You really need to read your opponent, are they really going to shoot or just trying to get you out of position? I tend not to actually use the shot block animation and instead just get my players body in the shooting lane as you will be able to react quicker if they don’t actually shoot. If I am sure they will shoot, then I will get as close to them as possible and do a one knee block.
Tie up/Board play
*I’ll update this section to include the new NHL 17 front of the net tie up once I’ve had more time to test it out in depth.
Update: Turns out the new tie up and extended stick lift deserved their own net-front battle guide.
The boards tie up you will likely be more familiar with the AI players doing against you or against your opponents. This is when they press you up against the boards and then you are forced to kick the puck to the left, right, or between your legs.
How to: Hold down “Y”(Xbox) or “Triangle”(PS4) when your opponent is near the boards.
When to: It is actually kind of over powered because it doesn’t matter how fast your opponent is moving you will still be able to stop them dead in their tracks if you tie them up. It’s effective when your opponent is trying to squeeze by you on the boards, if you think they might get by then instead of hitting, just do a tie up. This will give your team mates time to catch up to the play.
When to Switch to Defense
This one goes back to the positioning conversation. Often I play opponents who turn their defensive zone into some kind of light show with the amount of times they’re switching players. I know it’s difficult but put some faith into your AI otherwise they will be scrambling all over the place as you take them out of position and switch to someone else.
Sometimes sticking with your forward on the back check and applying pressure from behind to force your opponent into your D Men or to curl back is actually the better play.
In short, you don’t always need to be the player who is closest to the puck.
This is especially true in the defensive zone. Always ensure that passing lanes are covered. Mostly the cross crease lane, which even when covered the occasional pass will still get through and you will rage… but that is life.
Vision control is an absolute MUST when defending, so if you aren’t already familiar with it then I recommend reading my NHL 17 Skating Guide.
Time to Get Practicing!
That covers the basic building blocks of defense in NHL 17 and pretty much any recent year of NHL since your defensive tools haven’t changed that drastically in past years. Now the hard part… actually implementing them at the right times in-game. That will take practice!
Don’t forget that simply having possession of the puck is a great way not to get scored on, so make sure you’re winning your faceoffs!
The advice above is by no means a complete guide, there are too many unique situations to cover all at once – this post would never have seen the light of day! I’ll add more advanced and situation specific techniques/strategies in upcoming posts. There will always be players coming up with clever new ways to implement each tactic – share in the comments if there are any I’ve missed or if there is a request for more tips on a particular technique/strategy 🙂