Hockey is played on a 200'x85' sheet of ice* divided into sections by a center red line and two blue lines positioned 60' out from each end
of the rink. These blue lines serve to mark each team's offensive and defensive zones. At both ends of the ice, about 13' from the end boards, a 6' wide by 4' tall net is positioned. A full diagram can be found here.
Each team gets to put six players on the ice. This usually consists of three forwards, two defenseman, and of course, the goalie. At the beginning of the game, the puck is dropped and the players fight for posession with their sticks, this is the faceoff. From here on, the goal
is simple. Use your stick to put the puck in the other team's net as often as possible. At the end of three 20 minute periods, the team with the most goals wins.
To fully appreciate hockey, you have to first understand some basic rules. While this is by no means a comprehensive list, this should serve to outline calls that are made by the referees most often.
When one team shoots the puck from their own end of the center red line all the way past the other team's goal line, icing is called. The faceoff will then be brought back to the violating team's zone. This rule was put in place to prevent teams from simply shooting the puck the length of the ice to waste time. In the NHL, the opposing team must touch the puck first for icing to be called. Other international leagues simply call icing as soon as the puck has passed the goal line.
2. Off Side
This rule states that no offensive player can go into the offensive zone (past the blue line) before the puck does. This is why you'll see
teams in the NHL dump the puck hard into the zone before anyone goes into get it (also called "dump and chase").
3. Two Line Pass
This is strictly an NHL rule and is not found in international or beer-league hockey. This rule simply states that the puck cannot be passed from one player to another over both the center red line and one of the blue lines.
When a player from one team commits one of any number of infractions such as tripping, elbowing, or roughing, they are sent to the penalty
box. For a minor penalty, the player must sit for two minutes. Other infractions can get you more time, such as five minutes for fighting.
When this happens, the team that was assessed the penalty must play short-handed for the assessed time.
You can get a comprehensive list of rules at NHL.com or USAHockey.com
The Biscuit - Another term for the puck. A 1" thick by 3" in diameter rubber disk.
The Crease - This is the blue painted area just in front of the net where the goalie stands.
The Slot - The area between the two faceoff circles in a team's zone, located just above the crease. This area is considered the prime scoring location in hockey.
The Point - The point is the area just inside the blue line in the offensive zone, usually occupied by defensemen.
The Neutral Zone - The center-ice area in between the two blue lines.
Power Play - When a penalty is assessed, the team that does not have a player in the box is considered to be on the power play.
Breakaway - A player that has taken the puck out of his own zone with no players in front of him. This is considered the best scoring opportunity in hockey since the only player that can prevent him from getting a goal is the opposing goalie.
As alluded to earlier, each of the six players on each team have very specific duties. This is easily seen when watching an NHL game. If one player is too far out of position the other team may get an easy scoring opportunity.
The Goalie's position on paper is relatively simple. Stop the puck from going in the net. However in practice he has one of the most difficult jobs on the ice. If he is playing in net properly, the goalie will make sure that any shots directed towards him are either swallowed by the large glove he has on one hand, or redirected harmlessly out to the side of the ice with his blocker or pads. In fact, J.S. Giguere proved in last year's Stanley Cup Finals exactly how far a goalie that's "in the zone" can take a team.
Next to the goalie, the two players relied upon to prevent the other team from scoring are the defensemen. In the defensive zone, they will
usually be positioned with one defenseman attacking the player with the puck and the other making sure that no opposing player is sitting
in the slot. When the other team is coming into the defensive zone, the defenseman's job is to make sure that the player either can't get a
shot on goal or he gets a very bad shot on goal.
In the offensive zone, the defensemen are usually stationed at the points. Sitting at the blue line they can make sure that the puck doesn't accidentally leave the zone and that no opposing players get a breakaway.
The left and right wingers are the two main forwards. They must be fast and handle the puck well. In the offensive zone, their job is to get open for a pass and get ready to either pass to another forward or put the puck on net. If the puck is turned over to the other team, the
winger's job is to forecheck, or pressure the other player into making a mistake. Defensively, the wingers will usually cover the two defensemen at the point.
The center is the most complex of all the positions in hockey. When in the defensive zone, the center must act as a third defenseman, clearing the slot of any free players and attacking the puck carrier. On offense, the center must be ready to play on any area of the ice. If a wing goes to the front of the net, the center must be ready to take his old position along the boards. If a defenseman leaves his point, the center must be ready to take his spot as well.
Watching an NHL hockey game can be a bit confusing for the newcomer. Even knowing the positions and the rules, it can still be hard trying to figure out exactly why players do certain things. Though hockey strategy covers everything from one-on-one's to the Swedish Torpedo, the following should serve as a pretty basic guide to NHL-style play:
When a team turns the puck over in the offensive zone, the other team must first break out of their own zone. The forwards will skate towards the blue-line and the defense will look to pass up ice. In order to keep pressure on the opposing players, the team that turned the puck over will usually keep one or two offensive players low in the zone to try to turn the puck back over. This defensive pressure in the offensive team's zone is the forecheck. When watching a game, take note of how the forechecking player constantly tries to steer the other player towards the boards. What he's dong is trying to get the defenseman to make a bad pass, or better yet, give up the puck altogether.
One extremely contraversial type of forecheck is known as the trap. Developed in Sweden, this style of forecheck basically consists of giving up pressure in the offensive zone in order to help clog up the neutral zone. This shuts down any ability the other team has of skating through or passing easily. Games featuring trap teams are usually considered boring because of their lack of offensive play. Probably the most famous trap team today are the New Jersey Devils. When watching their games, you'll note that emphasis is not places so much on winning, but on not losing.
Dump And Chase
One of the ways around the trap is the dump and chase. Once a team has broken into the neutral zone with the puck, a player will skate up to the red line (to avoid icing) and dump the puck hard into the offensive zone. While it looks like they are giving up the puck, this is actually a calculated maneuver designed to regain posession by going around the defense rather than through them.
When you see this in a game, notice how on the other side of the ice, one or two of the offensive players will immediately skate hard into
the zone. What they are doing is attempting to regain posession of the puck. Since the defense is skating backwards when the puck is dumped, the theory is that the offensive wingers will win the race.
Of course, now that the team has the puck in the offensive zone, they have to setup a play to get the puck in the net. One of the basic ways to do this is to try to get the defensive players out of position by cycling the puck along the boards. In essence, the offensive players will try to set up a triangle to one side of the net. From there, they can switch positions with eachother while passing the puck back to the player that took their place. When done properly, cycling can be used to get the opposing defensemen out of position, creating scoring chances for the offensive team. Exaples of great cycling teams include the Colorado Avalanche and the Vancouver Canucks.
How am I supposed to follow that little black dot?
The short answer is: you don't have to. When you first start watching hockey you'll have a tendency to try to follow the puck all the time. When it gets lost or tied up the game becomes confusing. Instead of watching the puck, try watching the players. A perfect example of this is the dump and chase described above. When the defenseman skates to the red line with the puck, don't try to see where he's going to pass the puck, expect that he's going to dump the puck in. With a bit of practice you'll get used to reading the play, and actually find it quite easy.
If you're looking for a good game to watch to practice your new-found hockey understanding, I would suggest Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. It starts this Tuesday.