In the past days, NHL players entered the league-mandated bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto in order to prepare for what will hopefully be a safe and exciting resumption of play. Aside from clothes, toiletry and other other essentials, many of them have also brought their video game consoles and gaming PCs.
Generally speaking, pro hockey is run by folks who, at best, don’t think much of video games and, at worst, think it’s a source of distraction for their young players.
I disagree with their assertion.
If you are an NHL player spending the next few weeks in group confinement, gaming can be a wonderful way to reset mentally, connect with friends outside of your bubble and even gain a competitive advantage on your peers.
If you play Fortnite or Call of Duty there’s not too much I can help with. But if your go-to game is NHL20, then here are three tips to win more often online and even translate that improvement onto the ice against your peers.
Practice Mode: Overload your brain
A wonderful but oft-overlooked feature in the EA Sports NHL series is Practice Mode. Think of it as a fresh sheet of ice, available whenever you want it.
1v0 or 2v0 drills are great for learning the game’s basic controls and figuring out more advanced Skill Stick moves. But try stacking the odds in the CPU’s favor by practicing 1v2, 2v3 and 3v5 rush drills. Use the All-Star or Superstar difficulty. Don’t be scared.
At first you’ll feel overwhelmed. You will lose the puck far more than you’ll score. But over time you will find that this overload training will help you think the game faster and make better reads.
Is the last D back stepping up to hit me or is he taking away the 2-on-1 pass with his body?
Can I roll off this check and attack the net or am I better off holding him off and looking for another play?
Should I shoot short-side or cut across the crease?
There are all the same split-second decisions you’ll have to make in a game. Except here you can run hundreds of reps and use trial-and-error to improve before having to do it with the Stanley Cup on the line.
Game transfer: Cutback timing
The ability to perform cutbacks to protect the puck and extend possession is a critical skill at the NHL level. Many pro coaches now realize the importance of teaching the correct posture and execution such a skill move. As a former member of the Maple Leafs player development staff, I can speak to how much time and attention we devoted to improving this aspect of our players’ games.
However there is a missing piece to the puzzle. As a group coaches are getting better at teaching the “what” and “how” as it relates to the cutback. But I don’t think they yet have a full understanding of “when” to employ the move for maximum effectiveness.
What I found after logging many hours in NHL20’s practice and game modes is that you should look to proactively close the gap before cutting back with the puck - both in the game and in real life. Instead of fading away from the defender, get into his kitchen, make him shift his weight away from you and then roll off and make your next play.
Do it too late (his shoulder into your arm) and you’ll get hit and lose the puck, but do it too early (more than a stick-length away) and your opponent can easily read the play and close off the next passing lane.
Proficient NHL20 players have an intuitive understanding of this manoeuvre. Using a judicious combination of the Skill Stick, the puck protection button and the left trigger, they cut to evade checks early in a sequence to create odd-men rushes down-ice. Practicing this timing in chel is a low-risk way to accumulate some mental reps before applying it under the spotlights.
Playing the metagame
While NHL20 is a terrific simulation of pro hockey, it is not a perfect replica of the game. With competitive matches set at 12 minutes (3x four-minute periods), the pace of the game is so much faster than the real thing. Computer-controlled players seldom make mistakes and all of them can execute intricate stickhandling moves at full-speed without losing the puck. In that sense, chel is like playing an especially frantic variant of speed chess - you need to make correct tactical decision every second in order to keep up with the game.
This is in my opinion the most fascinating part of the game, especially when you are competing against human players. The best ways to score in the game is either with a breakaway deke or a cross-seam one-timer. A skilled human player will do everything in their power to take those options off the table when defending. So what then?
Maybe try a strong-side deke and roof the puck instead of passing on a 2v1.
Perhaps consider playing the puck back to the point for a screened shot instead of forcing a play to the net?
Or even don’t do anything at all, let your opponent make the first move and then exploit the open space.
The possibilities are infinite in this move/counter-move universe.
The Patrick Kanes, Auston Matthews and Roman Josis of the world are already thinking at this level against players such as yourselves on the ice. Now’s the perfect time to get a taste of what makes them so richly creative and uniquely difficult to defend.
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