When Ulf Dahlen goes into the corner for a loose puck, he always seems to come out with it. Considered one of the top puck-protection men in the league, Dahlen says the main reason for his success is that he is comfortable playing the puck with his skates.
“If a guy’s grabbing my stick,” he explains, “I use my feet.”
Dahlen says when he is in the corner protecting or retrieving a puck, a defenseman will often come in and try to take his stick out of the play.
“They want to work on my stick,” he says. “But if they go work on your feet, you’re going to go down and they might get a penalty.”
Dahlen says it’s hard for a defenseman to legally check a skate, whereas a stick is fairly simple for a defenseman to neutralize.
Also, going to the corner often means taking a hit, which is something else Dahlen feels he can use to his advantage. After a player throws a hit, it takes him a moment to regroup. Dahlen uses that split second to get better control of the puck or make a pass.
If you know a hit is coming, Dahlen advises, don’t leave the boards.
“You try to be close to the boards,” he says. “That makes it easier to be hit.”
Why? Because you are much more likely to stay on your feet if the boards are right there, propping you up.
At 6’3” and 200 pounds, Dahlen is no small guy in the corner. But even he knows you can’t prepare yourself for every bone-cruncher.
“Well, there is no good way to take a hit,” he says with a laugh.
Once he’s taken the hit and won the puck with his feet, Dahlen’s next task is either to make a pass or drive to the net.
“Don’t throw the puck blindly,” he instructs, sounding like a coach in the making, because nine times out of 10 a blind pass will be intercepted. But driving to the net often opens up another player.
“If no one else comes to you (after winning the puck along the boards), take it to the net. Then, if someone else comes to you (as you are driving), he is leaving your teammate open.”
So Dahlen says he always has his head up when driving to the net, looking to draw a defenseman and pass off the puck. If no one takes him, Dahlen is left to shoot it himself.
“Don’t be afraid to shoot if no one comes to you,” he says. “And, sometimes you take the good shot, but you know you’re going to get hit after.”
He said it’s to his advantage to take that hit, because it usually means his teammate is now open for the rebound. Remember the old cliché about “taking one for the team?” Well, Dahlen says it really works.
A hot commodity
It’s this kind of heady, selfless play that has made Dahlen, a right wing who has played all three forward positions during his career, a hot commodity since being drafted in the first round, seventh overall, by the New York Rangers in 1985. Dahlen has played for three different teams during his eight-year career, but not because his teams didn’t want him. On the contrary, he’s the type of player every GM wants—a gifted offensive player with a good head for defense. In short, Dahlen is the complete package.
After New York traded him to Minnesota (for Mike Gartner) late in the 1990 season, Dahlen was a key element in the then-North Stars 1991 run to the Stanley Cup Finals. And when he arrived in San Jose a late-season deal in 1994, he keyed the Sharks unlikely upset of the Western Conference champion Detroit Red Wings. It should also be noted that the Stars never seem to have recovered from his departure.
Dahlen says defensemen often give up their position to attack the puck along the boards. While going for the puck that is often in Dahlen’s skates, defenders sometimes don’t stay between the puck and the net. For those situations, Dahlen tries to be ready to drive straight to the net if he can get away with the puck.
Dahlen urges forwards not to rely on their sticks too much. Because sticks are so easy to tie up, he feels you have to be able to work the puck, and protect it, with your body and skates.
San Jose counts on Dahlen for board work and puck protection not only during even strength, but also on the power play—where he has scored 19 goals over the past two seasons. He says the nice thing about the man advantage is that once he wins the puck, he already knows a teammate is open. It’s just a matter of finding him.
The open man could be anywhere in the offensive zone, he adds, so don’t just look in one place—like in front of the net—for him. Of course, the more familiar you are with your power-play unit, the more likely you are to know instinctively where your teammates are stationed.
Dahlen says one of the things he always does in the corner is buy time, letting the rest of his team gain the zone and set up. This delaying is even more important on the power play, so he urges players not to feel rushed in the corner.
And again, if a defenseman wants to put the body on you during the power play, it’s to your advantage. A four-on-three is better than a five on four, and if someone leaves the penalty-killing formation to hit you, that’s what you’re left with.
“The perfect thing is to get someone to hit you,” says Dahlen.
— Rob Keast
This first appeared in the 01/1996 issue of Hockey