Apr 18, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar (11) celebrates with right wing Dustin Brown (23) after scoring a goal during the first period as Vancouver Canucks goalie Cory Schneider (35) reacts in game four of the 2012 Western Conference quarterfinals at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE
Hockey teams are divvied up into three categories: forwards, defense, and goaltending. Let's start with the forwards.
As mentioned previously, there are five skaters on the ice, and one goaltender. Goaltending will probably be left for another day, as it's a rather complicated topic, and defense will probably be covered next week. Today's going to be about the forwards.
The basic terminology for a hockey rink is this: between the blue lines at center ice is the neutral zone. From the blue line to your goalie is the defensive zone. From the blue line to the opposing goalie is the offensive zone.
There are three forwards that make up a line: left wing, center, and right wing. If you're a basketball fan, these roughly correspond with point guard, center, and shooting guard. In football terms, the center is roughly a quarterback, the right winger is roughly a wide receiver, and the left winger is roughly a tight end. Though, the comparisons aren't really exact, but they give you an idea, at least.
The range of a centerman is from in front of one goalie net to in front of the other goalie net. In the offensive zone, they take faceoffs, set up plays, and occasionally camp out in front of the goal to deflect shots. In the defensive zone, they sometimes act as a third defenseman, still take faceoffs, and often make the first pass out of the defensive zone.
As for the wingers, they can be - and often are - interchangeable. Although, left wing is also sometimes used for defensemen who, for whatever reason, are switched to playing forward for a game. And right wing is where right-handed shooters who are forwards tend to end up.
(Most players in the NHL shoot left. That is, they have their left hand part way down the stick with their right hand at the end, or the handle. Right-handed players tend to shoot left, and left-handed players tend to shoot right. There's no hard and fast rule in regards to that, however.)
The right wing plays to the right of the center, which seems obvious, but it's best to be obvious about these sorts of things. They cover from the blue line outside of their defensive zone to the net on the right side. They can also take faceoffs, if necessary.
The left wingers do the same, it's just that they play on the left side of the ice. Typically, the wingers' biggest job is to score goals, but they also can help set up plays as well. They tend to hang out a ways from the net so that they have some room to maneuver.
These are the traditional roles of the forwards, and where they go and what they do in an idealistic way. Life, of course, rarely meets with idealism, so there's a lot of mixing and matching that goes on during games. Some coaches like to keep the same players together whenever possible, but other coaches will change up players on lines multiple times during a game.
Matching lines during a game is putting certain forwards from one team against certain other forwards. During breaks in play, the home team gets the last change. That is, they can put players on the ice out after the visiting team does. So there's more opportunity to put the more defensive guys out against the more offensive-minded players. Or, putting the best players from both teams on the ice to go head-to-head against each other.
Some coaches use this strategy more than others. In the end, whatever works is what a coach will do the most. So, that sort of thinking is basically the same across all of sports.