It’s a clichéd notion, but there’s still some truth that hockey, of all the big four North American sports, is the Ringo of the bunch. Make no mistake though, its stock is certainly back on the rise in America. The TV ratings on NBC and its various affiliates — OLN, Versus, whatever the Peacock has decided to call it this week — have been steadily rising, and it’s now beginning to feel en vogue all over again to be a fan of the sport. So for those of you who may want to get into the game, as well as the video game, here’s a primer to get you started.
(Just a note that this is a very general, overall guide to the hockey and NHL 12. I’d love to get into every detail, but for the sake of brevity (kind of), I just can’t. So for the really starter stuff — rules, terminologies like neutral zone, icing, interference, slap shot vs. wrist shot, etc., please click here and here for a quick crash course. Our very own Glenn Wigmore has also written a great piece on more in-depth strategizing too. And of course, if you’re still confused, Google is your friend. At least when they’re not too busy changing their privacy rules, or doodling.)
Part One: Lines
The legendary funnyman George Carlin once opined in his routine that hockey “isn’t a sport because it’s three activities going on at the same time: Ice skating, playing with a puck and beating the (crap) out of somebody.” Leaving the debate of whether it’s an actual sport aside, Carlin actually sums up hockey pretty succinctly. There are usually three facets to a good hockey player — speed, skill and physicality. When building your lines in the NHL games, it’s good to keep this in mind as well. You may think it’s a good idea to have an entire squad of hulking big men throwing their weight around, but what’s the use if you can’t even catch the other team or put the puck in the net? It’s the same general idea when scouring for players to acquire. Most players usually are good at two of the three skills. Those who truly deserve to be on your first line should ideally be excellent in two categories. If you find that rare player who can skate, hi, and score — in other words, do everything — congratulations, you have a stud on your hands.
Let’s talk lines. Oftentimes you’ll hear so-and-so is meant to be a fourth liner, or that a player doesn’t score enough to be a second liner but isn’t defensively sound to play on the third line either. What are they talking about?
Generally speaking, there are certain perceived responsibilities for each line. The first line, one that usually logs the most ice time, consists of your best players. They are your fastest and most offensively potent players, but ideally should also be well rounded enough to play some defense. The second line is your other scoring line. Your next best offensive players usually reside here. This is also where you can stash your more one dimensional players (i.e. the player who can skate and shoot, but is way undersized and can’t backcheck). The reasoning is that playing on the second line, there is less chance these players will match up against the opponent’s best players, thus their potential to score a goal outweighs the potential of them costing your team one.
Then we come to the “bottom two.” The third line, in many ways, can be the most crucial of them all. Also known as the checking line, this is where, generally, your defensive specialists — checking forwards, hence the name for the line — play. While they’re still expected to contribute the occasional goal, the checkers’ primary aim is to shut down the opponents’ scorers. This is where you will hear the phrase “line matching.” Line matching is where you assign a certain line of your team against a certain line of your opposition’s. Many times it will be a third line — the best defensive line — against the opponent’s top line. This is a strategy that can make your team more defensively sound, but the trade off is that your best players won’t see the ice as often. The fourth line, meanwhile, is not expected to play too often. Depending on the style of your team, it can be simply a line for players who don’t have a home anywhere else, or it can be three big guys who try to provide a spark by throwing a big hit or winning a fight.
There are, of course, exceptions to this. For example, if you have a really offensively talented team, so talented that you can throw caution to the wind and just try to outscore your opponent every game, then your third line may not have to be so defensive, if at all. Or maybe your second unit can play defense just as well as your third line, then you can line match the opposition’s top line with your second line rather than your third. Also, instead of stacking your lines so that your top line has three of the best forwards and your second line has zilch, you can of course switch places and create two fairly potent offensively trios instead. Balance — whether it’d be offensive or defensive, or a balance between speed and physicality — is what will win you hockey games.
Defensively, the reasoning behind lines is a little less complicated. There are three defensive lines, and while the easy way out may be just to arrange them by their overall ability, it’s also important to keep a few other things in mind as well. First of all, remember balance? It’s always a good idea for each pairing to have an offensive and defensive-minded D-man. Now, if you have an all-around stud such as Shea Weber, you can disregard this. Even if NHL 12 has him listed as an offensive player, it doesn’t really matter because he’s highly rated in pretty much every defensive aspect as well.
The other thing to keep in mind, and it’s one that many often forget, is which side a defender plays on versus his shooting hand. Ideally, in even strength situations, your right handed players should play on the right side and your lefties on the left. Why? Picture this: Your right-sided defenseman retrieves the puck, under pressure, facing his own end. If he is a right hander, he can simply spin and fire the puck out along the sideboards — a much less dangerous part of the rink than the middle. Now if it was a left hander on that side, sure, he can still clear it along the sides, but keep in mind that he would have to do so with his much weaker and less accurate backhand