The floating triangle

The basis of Triangle Defense is that there are three mallet positions to block all straights and single banks. However, the positions shift based on where the puck is located – I refer to this as the “floating triangle”. In this article I discuss how the concept of re-centering to defend straights should also be applied to banks.

Let’s start by looking at two illustrations. The first shows three different puck locations. Each puck location has three unique mallet positions to defend straights and banks:

Floating Triangle (Mallets)

The second illustration shows the same as above, but uses lines to visualize the movement of the Triangle Defense:

Floating Triangle (Pyramid)

Key takeaways:

  • Banks are more obtuse off the rail that the puck is closest to; the defense does not have to pull as far to block these shots.
  • Banks are more acute off the rail that the puck is furthest from; the defense has to pull further to block these shots.
  • The defense should be positioned slightly closer to the centerline when the puck is further back on the opponent’s side.

A game of inches

The adjustments required to play a solid floating triangle defense are small but important. Think of it like this: An air hockey table’s goal is 15 inches across, pucks are three inches in diameter, and mallets are four inches. A shift of the mallet by just a few inches makes a huge impact.

Make it intuitive

Figuring out where to move your mallet to, depending on where the puck is located, is not the type of thought process you want to have in a close match. To make the defensive locations intuitive practice defending banks which are hit from everywhere. Once you are aware of the concept of the floating triangle, pulling to the correct spots becomes second nature with enough repetitions.

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Holding steady

Owen Giraldo and Ehab Shoukry have the best defenses against straights. What do they do differently to block cuts, crosses, power straights, and off-speeds? The answer is right in front of you (and them). They hold steady.

Once their defenses are set, they simply do not move their mallets after a straight shot is executed. This is one of the basic ideas behind the Triangle Defense – movement is reserved for blocking banks. When the puck is struck your mallet should already be in the correct position to block ALL straights: About 14″ out from the goal, directly on the path between the center of your goal to the center of the puck. Once the mallet is in this position, there is only one type of straight that will score: A perfect one. And unless you are playing Jesse Douty or a small handful of others, you will not have to worry about too many dead-on shots. When a straight is hit against you, do not move the mallet to the left, right, back or to the centerline. The mallet is already in the path of virtually all of the straights. Just make sure that your mallet is centered correctly in relation to the puck and goal.

A few more pointers to block straights

Keep your wrist limp so that when the puck strikes the mallet it will be deadened. Once the puck makes initial contact with the mallet in its out position, then move the mallet so that the puck is not redirected off the bank back into the mallet and into your goal.

Easy enough, right? Now all you have to do is the hard part…figure out when the straights are coming!

*Originally published April 30, 1999

Charging

Charges are a risky proposition, but if successful they are gratifying, especially when stuffed back into your opponent’s goal. In this article I go over the pros and cons of charging, when and how to charge, and discuss a short video. Let’s start with a definition:

A charge is a defensive movement away from the goal toward the centerline or rail that is used to block a shot.

The pros and cons of charging

Pros

  • A successful charge likely results in a turnover or goal
  • Causes doubt in the offense
  • Adds a layer of aggressiveness to defense
  • Makes defense less predictable

Cons

  • An incorrect charge leaves your goal completely unprotected
  • Even if you do charge correctly a lot can go wrong

Use sparingly, it is a dangerous weapon

The prevailing wisdom, which I think is correct, is that one charge per two games is usually appropriate. When you are learning to play, and even if you are a top-tier player, you should condition yourself to simply not charge the vast majority of the time. One charge per two games means that you are going to charge about one out of 65 shots. That is less than 2% of the time!

When is charging the right play?

A sprinkling of charges is appropriate when you: 1) wish to deter your opponent from a specific shot, 2) are able to clearly read your opponent, 3) would like to “advertise” a charge in a less-meaningful situation, such as being down 5-1 or ahead 3-0. This is intended to cause doubt in your opponent’s shot selection later on when the situation might be more important.

There is a time when you should charge often: when you are being absolutely destroyed on defense and your blocks do not result in turnovers. Even more so if you are being scored on with shots that follow a similar path, such as Left-wall-unders and overs – a charge can block both with equal effectiveness. When you are blocking under 25-50% of shots on goal and getting few turnovers, go ahead and charge. Charging every time in this circumstance is OK. Davis Lee, 2-time world champion, sums it up like this:

… if you are playing against a superior opponent, the correct strategy is to gamble against him. When you are playing a better player, it is correct to take more chances on defense to try to get the puck back.

I agree wholeheartedly, but remember this should not be your typical approach. I have only needed to use this charge-each-shot tactic a handful of times in 20 years. However, I think that as offenses improve, charging will and should happen more often.

How to charge

A charge is an all or nothing tactic that requires total commitment. When you charge, move your mallet in a straight line and push the mallet forward. You should not swing your mallet like on offense; instead shove the mallet from behind. As you do this, lunge toward the centerline as quickly as possible while remaining controlled. This lunge is best accomplished when your full body is used. Lean out over the table by bending at the waist, and as I have talked about before, you should be on the balls of your feet while on defense. This defensive stance is particularly important when charging because you need to rapidly transition from a defensive stance to an offensive stance. The use of your legs will help create additional speed and power. Also remain in constant motion while on the balls of your feet to make quicker movements – similar to the way tennis players bounce prior to returning serve. 

When charging straights, meet the puck at the centerline – this will cut off the most angle. When charging banks, meet the puck two to three inches from where the puck will impact the rail – this allows for the largest room of error. If the opponent is hitting obtuse banks that contact the rail on their side of the table, meet the puck at the centerline.

Charges should happen at the last possible moment so that you do not tip your hand, unless you are faking a charge to bait the offense into attempting an early bank. This fake should be a rare occurrence and happen even less than an actual charge. As always it depends on my opponent’s reactions, but I would normally use this play once, possibly twice, over the course of a set unless it is exceptionally effective.

Examining The Doctor

Jesse Douty, a.k.a. “The Doctor”, was one the best chargers of all time. Below is 18-second clip of him making a flurry of text-book charges vs. Bob Dubuisson way back in 1983. Notice that Jesse uses his full body to extend to the centerline as he aggressively pushes the mallet in a direct path to the puck:

These charges were in the finals of the World Championships with the score tied at 6-6 and Jesse was down 3 games to 2. Charging in that type of high-pressure situation takes commitment, and cojones!

Practice controlled aggressiveness

Charging is a skill that you should have, but it needs to be used sparingly in specific circumstances. Polish up your charges by calling practice games in which you must charge all shots, or if you charge successfully three times in a row you are awarded a point. You can even practice the charge motion without a partner; I do this as part of my warm-up routine. Just make sure that charging is practiced in a controlled setting so that it does not slip into your typical game as a bad habit. If you notice that you are charging too often, have a sidebar with yourself and get back to playing solid non-charging defense.

A crack in the great Pyramid Defense

I will blog a few more of my articles that were initially posted, before starting Say AH, on airhockeyworld.com‘s forums. This is one of my favorites:

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The Pyramid Defense is the most widely used defense and the most successful. Every top-25 player, save Jose Mora and Mark Nizzi, uses this defense. It is successful because the Pyramid Defense operates on the premise of defending all straight shots with one outward position of the mallet. The defensive focus of stopping straights is effective because it is more difficult for offenses to execute banks. Or simply put, it takes away your opponent’s natural strengths.

The Pyramid Defense, at its basic level, is easy to understand, but there are fundamental cracks in the defense that you should be aware of. The Pyramid Defense should not charge straights or pull back when straights are executed against it. However, the Pyramid Defense’s worst error is not being positioned directly between the puck and center of the player’s own goal. This concept is known as “recentering”. When the defense does not recenter correctly, this is when the greatest amount of goal is left unprotected. Case in point: Pulling your mallet back to the goal when a straight shot is hit against you is a lesser mistake than using a Pyramid Defense that is not recentered.

A Crack in the Pyramid

In the middle example above, 75% of the goal is unprotected. If the puck is further off-center, 100% of the goal may be open.

As a defensive player, you should always be recentering  based on where your opponent has drifted the puck, while at the same time not overcompensating based on the puck’s movement. The recentering should should be constant and occur prior to the opponent striking the puck. The recentering range is only about 2-3 inches to the right or left depending on where the puck is located – this recentering movement is to ensure that the defense’s mallet is directly on the path between the center of the their goal to the center of the puck. The recentering adjustments are minor, but vital. If the defense does not make these nuanced movements, a large opening (as you see above) is left for an easy score.

As an offensive player, you should consistently use tactics that cause the defense not to recenter. An example is to drift the puck from right to left-of-center. As the puck drifts across the center of the table, the offensive player pump fakes a cut shot, thereby freezing the defense, then the player continues to drift the puck further to the left and executes a cut shot from the left-of-center while the defense remains frozen at the center of the table.

Patch the cracks

What can you do to improve defensively on this weakness of the Pyramid Defense? And conversely, what on offense can you do to take advantage of this weakness? One of my favorite drills is to play a set in which both players use only straight shots: Backhands and forehands, cuts and crosses. The defense may not charge or play out past its normal distance – usually about 14-16 inches from the goal. This drill forces the offense to become very creative in using tactics that cause the defense to off-center. From the defensive player’s point of view, it builds discipline and constant focus on recentering based on the location of the puck.

So, the next time you are playing, always be recentering on defense. And when on offense, drift to the left and right of the table, looking for those easy goals.

*Originally published January 5, 2012