Ah, the thrill of a Caps game. What? You don’t think it’s been very exciting lately? What has happened to that thrill-a-minute Caps run and gun game? Why hasn’t Nicky scored in eons? What the hell has happened to Ovi? Yeah, yeah, I know. But, do not despair, fellow Caps fans. These guys are holding back that wiz-bang style of play for a very good reason; Bruce & Co. are having these young guns playing the “Neutral Zone Trap”.
You know you’ve heard that phrase tossed around, but what does it mean, why does it cause such low-scoring yawn-fests, and lastly, why are they doing it? Well, because I feel it is my life’s mission to make understanding hockey easy enough for anyone, I’m gonna tell ya.
First of all, the Neutral Zone Trap (or just “trap” as I am going to call it from this point forward) really can stop breakaways from becoming goals, and here’s why. When you play trap defense, the majority of the team stays in the neutral zone instead of rushing your forwards into the offensive zone.
The most basic trap positioning has one forechecker in the offensive zone (usually the center), the wingers in the neutral zone, and the defense in the defensive zone. As the opposing team starts skating up the ice, the forechecker’s job is to cut off the passing lanes to other offensive players by staying in the middle of the ice. This hopefully results in forcing the puck carrier to either sideboard. Then the “defensive” wingers; typically placed on or near the red line, can challenge the puck carrier along the boards to prevent passing or even keep opponents from moving through. Finally, the two defensemen who are positioned on or near the blue lines are the last line of defense. Their job, obviously, is to prevent a goal from being scored, or at least to stall the opposition long enough for the wingers to reset themselves and continue the trap.
So, when the offense tries to get into your defensive zone, you can have as many as 4 guys already there waiting to stop them. Have you ever noticed when watching a game on TV, you sometimes see 4 players from one team around their net (in their zone) and only 1 or maybe 2 players from the other team? Yes, it is possible that the other team is changing shifts right then, but it could also be that the rest of that team is in the neutral zone or even back beyond their blue line waiting. Watch when the camera pans out and you’ll see it.
The trap is a very defensive style of play; there aren’t many chances for the opposing team to get past them and score a goal. So when you have the lead, it’s an effective way to shut the other team down, but it also makes for boring play. When you are used to seeing the Caps flying all over the ice and shooting at the net from everywhere (up to and including the blue line), watching this defensive style is a big change. The thrill is gone.
Which brings me to the last part of the question; why are they doing it? Here’s how I see it: lately, it seems like everybody and their Mother have figured out the Caps system. They have probably studied every millimeter of game film they have on the Caps. As long as the team continued to play the same old same old style of hockey that they have for the last few years, other teams can pretty accurately predict what Semin is going to do, when Ovi is going to shoot, when Nicky is going to pass and who he’s is going to pass to, where Green or Schultz are going to be at any given moment. Think about it, as fans, WE know it, so why shouldn’t other teams be figuring this out? They are!! Secondly, in order to get into and through the playoffs, the Caps need more ammo in their holsters. Run and gun is great and the team is really excellent at it, but it cannot be the only style of play in our arsenal of weapons.
Like I said at the start, do not despair, Caps fans. I know it seems like they’ve been trying this for months. I feel your pain. This is not something that is learned overnight. Lots of these guys have very little experience playing the trap, but they will get there. All these line changes help the coaches figure out who does well in what situation or position when it comes to playing the trap. It’s obvious that the guys really want to break out and fly down the rink, but the trap takes discipline. You know you’ve seen Ovi apparently skating in circles, not moving to positions you’re used to seeing him in. You know you’ve seen Nicky not successfully passing to a winger with his usual accuracy. You scream at the TV for the guys to “CRASH THE NET!!!” (I know you have, I have too). But, once they become even more familiar and comfortable with it, it will be a benefit to our game. And rest easy, the exciting and thrilling style of play we’ve seen for years is still there and will be implemented when it’s either necessary or at least not a detriment to the final score. At least, that's what I think...Any questions?
Editors Note: To read a great post on the Caps players reaction to playing the trap, check out Capitals News Network here.