The game of hockey has evolved from a game of straight-up skill versus skill-matchups to more of a game of chess. Instead of purely trying to impose your physical advantages (for example, more speed or strength) against an opponent, today's game has also integrated a more cerebral approach.
It's not that physical skills advantages still can't be exploited in today's game. Clearly, there are times when a player (or a team) has a decisive edge over another team and can exploit that physical or skills advantage with relative ease. However, with league parity play and increased access to advanced skill training, most teams/players are on a level playing field more often than not (particularly come playoff time).
When removing the talent advantage or mitigating it, the game becomes more.
cerebral exercise. Instead of purely trying to race past a defender, players need to become more creative and deceptive to achieve separation, literally and figuratively.
A great (and recent) example of using the art of deception to gain an advantage can be seen in the video below from a 2022 Tampa Bay Lightning/Florida Panthers playoff game. As illustrated in the video, Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov makes Florida Panther defender Aaron Ekblad think he is cutting to the inside by simply using his head and a subtle shift of his body weight to make it appear he is turning to the middle of the ice. Ekblad assumes the same thing by biting on the fake and starts to cut toward the middle to cut Kucherov off. The very second Ekblad shifts his weight towards the middle, Kucherov shifts his weight and cuts back to the outside, leaving Ekblad in his wake. The 0.26 and 0.52-second marks of the video below provide the best viewing of this deception in action.
Note how Kucherov points his skates to the right (the middle), turns his head to the middle, and also shifts his weight towards the middle. Everything Kucherov (intentionally) does send a message to the opposing team and the defender that he is going to the right, while the whole time, he knows he's going back to the left. By setting up this elaborate deception of a move to the right (middle of the ice), Kucherov is making the defenseman react how he wants him to rather than Kucherov having to counter what the defenseman is presenting him.
Not to be outdone by the amazing fake on the defender, Kucherov then uses more deception on the goalie to finish off the play. By keeping the puck in a shooting position and staring straight at the goalie, Kucherov gives off a signal (in this case, a false signal) that he is shooting. Hence the goalie shifts up to the top corner of the crease to square up to the perceived shot. However, this is all part of the deception, as Kucherov knows he has another Lightning player heading to the opposite post directly across from him.
By creating the perception of a shot, he gets the goalie grossly out of position and freezes him while knowing he has an open pass across the crease, leaving an easy tap-in goal for his teammate.
In the past, once moving in a certain direction, a player would try to beat the opposing player with athleticism (such as a pure speed rush). However, players today are more cerebral and try to keep other players guessing by using subtle deception.
No longer do players react to what is presented to them. Instead, today players try to be proactive and influence the game by using edgework, deception, and misdirection to force opposing players to react to them.
The video below shows another great example of deception and puck protection by Colorado Avalanche Defenseman Cale Makar. As illustrated in the video, Makar is slowly skating up the wall and looking to make a pass to the center (to a teammate), or so the defender assumes. His slower skating pace and his head fixated on the middle set up the perception to the defender that Makar is definitely thinking pass. With the defenseman lulled into a false sense of security, thinking he has Makar defended well, he loosens the gap (spacing) between himself and Makar.
With the defender buying the "fake pass deception" and playing loose defense, Makar then unwinds his deception by using his excellent edge control and spins back to the goal for the game-winner.
As a player, if you are still reacting to plays, start flipping the script and make players react to you by keeping them off balance with deception and misdirection.
To learn more about deception and misdirection and how to incorporate it into your game, I suggest you watch highlights on the internet and games on TV whenever you get the opportunity, In almost every pro or college game you watch, you will pick up a new move, or a new deception that you can mimic and perfect in practice and then incorporate it into your own game.
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