“Special Teams” are a group of players designated to perform certain duties during certain situations in the game. Power-play and short-handed are two of the most notable “special teams” used during the game due to their frequency, but other special teams include: “Face-Off/Loose Ball Team,” “Last Minute Defense/Offense" units, and the Ball Back/Rag Teams.
Most special teams have two units, otherwise it usually depends on how tired one group is versus the other, or the situation, with the first unit being the most relied upon. If the 2nd unit is playing better than the 1st unit during a game, or over a stretch of games, it should be considered whether to make them “starters,” or to change the line-up entirely.
All positions on the different special team therefore have a starter and back-up. Sometimes players that are playing exceptionally well during the game might also be added to a unit late in a game, while players having a bad night might be removed. All players should know exactly where they are on the line-up sheet prior to a game or practice, and are held accountable if their unit is called and they aren’t on the floor. If players who are called to be on the floor are too tired to go out, they should let the coach (and backup) know as soon as possible, ideally before or after the unit is called.
A “powerplay” is a numerical advantage on the floor as a result of a player on either team taking a penalty. A power-play is the result of 2-minute minor and/or 5-minute major penalties, taken by one team or the other. During a “5-on-4,” teams will usually set-up in a 2-2-1 formation (standard offensive positions), but a 2-1-2 ("dice") formation is also used, and sometimes a player behind the net (1-2-2). There is generally less interchange between positions during a power-play, with players instead having assigned roles in set-positions.
When a 4-on-3 situation arises, offensive players generally set-up in a square formation (offensive version of the "box"), occupying the two shooter and crease positions. A 5-on-3 power-play traditionally still sets up in a "box" offensive formation (4-on-3), with the 5th player standing near centre-floor acting as a "rover" on any loose balls, or opportunities the defense may have to breakout. Double-teaming the ball after losing it ensures the deadly 4-on-3 time gets maximized. A 5-on-4 power-play should strive to score 50%; whereas a 4-on-3 power-play is expected to score 75% of the time; both percentages can be skewed by actual power-play lengths (see coincidental penalties).
Usually before any set-play or shot is initiated, a team’s most skilled players will begin by first passing the ball once “around the horn,” unless trying to catch the other team off guard ("quick hitter"). Early diagonal passes are usually avoided, as well as early shots with relatively little or no ball motion and/or "ball movement," which are essential in creating quality shots. When less than 10 seconds are left in a penalty, no shots are usually taken until just before the penalized player returns to the play; for fear of a turnover resulting in a breakaway (unless this player is an egg & spooner or the team is down a few goals late in the game).
Aside from these general team rules, teams will either freelance or execute a set-play within each power-play possession (re-set), with the goal of getting an open shot in the prime scoring area. Freelancing doesn’t mean to stand and shoot whenever a player feels like it. Ball movement should be quick and players should still be moving, cutting when the ball is low at the crease position, dragging, and always filling. As a general rule, the opposite-side (off-ball) shooter should cut the middle every time the ball-side crease player gets the ball (with all players "filling" accordingly); the strong-side shooter should seal their check whenever the point player starts dragging towards them (both are considered automatic triggers).
Most set-plays on the power-play involve some sort of overload, via a pick/seal or multiple picks/seals, combined with some sort of ball/player movement; all at specific times (established during practice).
Below are a few basic set-plays that can be used at any level of lacrosse, within a standard 2-2-1 Formation:
Set Play #1: “Drag & Seal” - Click Here For Video
Set Play #2: “Pick The Shooter” (Roll Option) - Click Here For Video
Following a shot, players need to be ready to react immediately (this should always be re-enforced during practice - offensive players must also be taught how to double-team properly). Defensive coverage against reverse transition is the first responsibility, but more often than not there is an opportunity to Ride and double-team. Teams should do their best to apply pressure once general coverage has been established, in order to create a 10 second call or a turnover. If they are tired or unsuccessful, the back-up (Power Play #2) unit usually then gets the next opportunity on offense.
When playing the "dice" formation (2-1-2), set-plays and freelance may also be used; usually with a team's best picker/finisher in the middle. The added advantage of this formation is in causing miscommunication amongst defenders as to who is responsible to cover the middle player, and in what situations (requires high lacrosse IQ on the defenders' behalf). During freelance, the middle player can pick anywhere and also try to find soft spots for quick catch and shoot scenarios; primarily staying on their proper floor side. All other players should utilize the picks being set for them (otherwise presenting a decoy), while being careful not to force passes into the middle player (60-40 passes only).
Short-Handed: - Click Here For Video
Being “short-handed” or on the “penalty kill” is a numerical disadvantage created by one or more players taking a penalty. Teams will usually set-up in a "box" or "diamond" zone defense while short-handed with 4 defenders, or a "triangle" with 3 defenders; with different "rotations" available for each, if desired.
The box is structured to defend both crease offenders and both shooters, with the two high defenders' also splitting the point player (or the player in the middle if the powerplay is in a 2-1-2). Should the point player attempt to shoot, both defenders should “pinch” tight together, trying to block the shot.
When one of the shooters cuts through the middle, it is also the off-ball “high” defenders’ responsibility to follow the "cutter," eventually “passing them off” to the on-ball low defender. The “low” defenders’ major responsibility is to lock-off the creases, with all defenders keeping their sticks and bodies in the shooting and passing lanes.
Generally, the “high” defenders’ sticks are towards the middle, and the low defenders’ sticks are towards the boards, in order to best defend these lanes. Although, if either "shooter" on the power-play is a significant playmaker, it may warrant the high defenders' stick being on the outside (board-side).
This defense is designed to invite shots from the crease players and take away the shots of the offenders up high. Defenders must be careful not to get over-extended, leaving too much space in the middle.
The goalie usually plays back closer to the goal-line (“deep” in the net) to eliminate the angles for quick stick opportunities at the crease. The two defenders at the side of the diamond should also have their sticks toward the middle, in order to better defend the passing lanes to the crease players.
The triangle is used to kill a 4-on-3 powerplay. It can be played with two defenders high and one defender low (2 up, 1 back), vice-versa, or a mixture of both (Inverted Triangle). Playing two defenders up high invites the crease players to shoot and vice-versa (1 up, 2 back) invites the shooters to shoot.
In the latter case, the “low” defenders need to lock off the “crease players,” allowing the goalies to come out and challenge the shooters. With two defenders high, the low defender must be able to deter quick sticks from one crease player to the other (“crease-to-crease”), while also playing “cat & mouse” and communicating with the goalie.
It is important that all players know the situation and which zone defense is to be played, prior to getting on the floor; also any “assignments,” if required. If the other team is consistently successful against a certain zone (i.e. box vs. diamond), it is also important that coaches are ready to make adjustments. Teams may further switch up the zone being played simply to disrupt the other team’s offensive flow.
Players should always have their sticks up with their bodies in the shooting lanes, also aware of what is happening off-ball (head on a swivel). Defensive players need to recognize picks/seals, drags, cutters, fillers and players behind the net; communicating amongst one another. As a general team rule, players should not move more than “three shuffle steps” at a time, depending on the zone being played and the ball movement of the opposing team. If one player slides out of desperation, every player should slide in that same direction ("go"), effectively changing which part of the zone they are defending.
The Goaltender is essentially the biggest difference maker while short-handed, as they are the cornerstone of any defense. Loose balls are amply important, with the goaltender playing the most significant role via rebound control. Defenders also have a huge responsibility in this aspect as well, being sure to box-out after all shots (especially the low defenders). Instead of battling for rebounds in front of the net, it is usually better to just take a minor interference call, rather than allow the opposing team to pick-up a loose ball and potentially score.
Defenders need to make split-second decisions as to whether or not to pursue loose balls, some of which could potentially leave them out of position if they don’t get there first (50-50 balls). If a teammate does happen to obtain possession of the ball, defenders should run the ball up the floor “in two’s,” with all others running hard to the bench for a line change (a full change would be ideal; thus sparing the energy of the premiere penalty killers).
Games are very often won and lost on special teams. It is one of the 4 major aspects of lacrosse which all teams strive to win in terms of differentials, when compared to the opponent. The other 3 aspects are transition goal differential, 5-on-5 goals for and against, and lastly loose ball totals.
Staying out of the penalty box is the easiest way to win the special teams battle. It takes special attention every practice to make sure your triggers, timing and positioning are flawless within your special teams. If they are, your team will never be out of a lacrosse game.
In the end, back-ups are just as important as the starters, as you never know who will be injured, tired, in the penalty box, alongside a host of other variables and scenarios that your special teams may be faced with.