Some have called it boring. Others have said it ruined the game. While others yet said it made the game of hockey hard to watch. But in 2020 teams in the NHL are still using the neutral zone trap to protect leads and win hockey games. While the concept is the same, the execution of the neutral zone trap has changed ever so slightly. However, like most teams, they have realized this type of defensive system wins. And whether fans like it or the neutral zone trap is not going anyway anytime soon.
Neutral Zone Trap Still Exists
If you look at the defensive-minded teams in the league like the New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets, St. Louis Blues and a few others come to mind. Once they have a lead on against their opponent, it is usually hard for the opposition to score. Why is that? Well, these teams understand that defence wins championships.
Neutral Zone Trap Begins
The whole concept of the neutral zone trap began back in 1995 during the ‘Dead Puck Era’ when Jacques Lemaire was coaching the New Jersey Devils. Lemaire had his team playing a 1-2-2, whereby one winger will chase the puck in the offensive zone forcing it to one side. The attacking forwards teammates will meet the opposing puck carrier at the blue line or in the neutral zone. The Devils perfected this art as they won three Stanley Cup Championships and went to another final.
What makes this system so annoying to fans is that it slowed the game down to a crawl. Once the Devils had a lead, you knew the game was over. Many people called it boring hockey. However, this system brought the Devils so much success that other teams started to use it as well. Even when Lemaire left the Devils, to go to the Minnesota Wild bringing the system there, the team was still playing that system.
Present Day NHL
Through the years as the NHL has evolved its rules through various lockouts, the neutral zone trap has gone away to a point. Those defensive-minded coaches always looking to get a leg up on their opponent. Guy Boucher during his time as a coach in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators (2017) and Tampa Bay Lightning (2011), had his teams play a 1-3-1 trap.
However, both of his teams made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Now granted in the regular season, nobody wants to see the trap, but come playoff time it is when the trap is most effective. Just look at the Blues last year. While they played a heavy physical game, once they went up 2-0 on the Boston Bruins in Game 7, it was over. The Blues forced the Bruins to play dump and chase as they locked down the neutral zone. Boston was not comfortable playing that style of game and it showed.
2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs
In the qualifying round, the Blue Jackets took on the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Blue Jackets executed the trap to perfection in Games 1 and 5 of the series under the guidance of John Tortorella. This allowed them to beat the Maple Leafs in five games. They didn’t allow the Maple Leafs any high-quality opportunities on Joonas Korpisalo. This forced Toronto to take chances where the Blue Jackets capitalized.
Similarly, when the Philadelphia Flyers took on the Montreal Canadiens in Round 1, the Flyers played a version of the trap in Games 3, 4, and 6 to win the series. They were able to slow down Montreal’s speed through the neutral zone forcing the Canadiens to dump pucks deep. The Flyers sat back and let the Canadiens come to them especially in Game 6.
The Best Team At Playing The Trap
The Islanders are the best at playing the trap during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. As we saw against the Florida Panthers in the qualifying round, and against the Washington Capitals in the first round. They completely dominated both series because of their defensive play. Currently, the Islanders are playing the Flyers in the second round.
What makes the Islanders so dangerous is that they are relentless when they have a lead. They will not stop forechecking the puck in the offensive zone. The Islanders will chip the puck into an area where they can get it and outwork their opponent which leads to goals. However, when their opponent tries to get any offence going they are shut down by the Islanders in the neutral zone.
Take for example Game 1 against the Flyers. Philadelphia had no answers for the neutral zone trap. The Flyers were getting frustrated as they could not break it. Consequently, the Islanders capitalized on the Flyers’ turnovers. That’s apparent in the video on the goal by Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
The Flyers tried to get the puck through the middle of the ice but were met but several Islanders players. The puck is dumped into the corner, where the Islanders caused another turnover leading to the goal by Pageau. It is simple hockey that Barry Trotz has the Islanders playing.
When a team thinks defence first like the Islanders or Blue Jackets they are hard to beat. Even though the NHL has put in all these rules to help the offence, the good coaches like Barry Trotz will figure out a way to slow the game down come playoff time. So, fans need to get used to it because whether we like or not the neutral zone trap still exists and will for a very long time.
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