Snaking puck off sticks

CHRIS STEVENSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:33 AM ET

Daniel Alfredsson calls it "The Cobra."

It is a knifing action with his stick -- like a cobra strike -- to strip an opponent of the puck.

Senators winger Jesse Winchester knows it.

The rookie plays "keep away" with Alfredsson after practices, honing techniques for retrieving and protecting the puck.

"He had no antidote for it the first three practices," said Alfredsson of his move yesterday, though Winchester soon wised up.

"Alfie's the best at it. He's helped me figure out how to take the puck away from guys, positioning your body, seeing the way they check," he said.

Those kinds of skills have taken on increasing importance in today's game.

"Puck possession" have become the buzzwords of the NHL.

"It's everything," said Wayne Gretzky after his Phoenix Coyotes practised at Scotiabank Place yesterday in preparation for tonight's game vs. the Senators. "You can't touch anybody anymore. The less time you have the puck is just more of an opportunity for you to take a penalty. The more you have it, the greater the chance the other team will take a penalty. Look at the puck possession on the good teams, Detroit, Ottawa, Montreal, they have a lot of their success because they have the puck and force the other team to take penalties. When you get 8-10 power-play chances a game, your chances of winning the game are a lot greater."

It sounds so simple, it's stupid. It wasn't so long ago teams would gladly chip a puck all over the ice. A couple of things have happened to change the philosophy, both post-lockout. The door is open to smaller, more skilled players who are capable of having the patience to hang onto the puck until a play to a teammate can be made.

With the defensive player unable to reach around with an arm or even make contact in the midsection with a stick parallel to the ice without getting a penalty, the job of protecting the puck has been made easier.

Hockey is pretty simple right now: When you have the puck, keep it. When you don't, have a plan to get it back. Everything else flows from that.

Players who excel at protecting the puck are quick to earn coaches' confidence and the development of puck-protection skills has become a cottage industry.

It is one of the first priorities of Senators coach Craig Hartsburg.

"I think it's a lost art at this level," said Hartsburg. "It's a mindset. You have to have the hunger to have the puck."

Detroit's Pavel Datysuk is recognized as the gold standard in protecting the puck. Alfredsson was still marveling at his tactics and techniques yesterday after watching him Saturday. Datsyuk has a sixth sense when it comes to where the pressure is coming from and positions his body to shield the puck. Other players often choose a bad angle.

Nothing is left to chance in the game anymore. What might look like a random stick movement is Alfredsson forcing an opponent to go a certain way, baiting a trap.

Coaches are staying up late to come up with drills to strengthen their team's ability to get and keep the puck.

Winchester attended Colgate University where he played under coach Don Vaughan of Almonte and said practice every Tuesday was devoted to puck battle skills.

"Puck protection has always come naturally to me, but those drills helped reinforce the issue," said Winchester. "It's something I pride myself in. I like competing for the puck in that small space. I love having the puck, fighting for it. It's not a flashy thing."

Like Hartsburg said, it's a mindset.


Videos

Photos