|Admiral Ackbar Knew What Was Up|
The fact that the Penguins got shutout, let alone lost to a team headed to an early spring tee-time, isn't of particulate note: the Pens always seem to lose in New Jersey, and Pittsburgh teams have always had fits beating the neutral zone trap that the Devils perfected way back in 1995.
Unfortunately, the Penguins' difficulty in beating a defensive system that has been a league-wide fixture for 20 years is a severe cause for concern, and the fate of this year's roster will likely hinge on the team's ability to reverse a trend that has matriculated into a pattern of disappointment come playoff time.
On the surface, the neutral zone trap isn't particularly complex: the opposing team overloads to one side of the ice, forcing the puck carrier to flow play through the uncongested area in the neutral zone (between the two blue lines).
This "open lane" has its limitations: because defenders occupy the other skating avenues, the skating player has but one choice in terms of his direction. In addition to allowing defenders to know where, exactly, the puck will be going, potential passing lanes will be cut off and defensemen will invariably contest entry at the offensive blue line, forcing the stickhandling puck carrier to either beat two men into the zone, or to dump/chip the puck past them and hope to retrieve the rubber in the corner.
|Hollywood's depiction of how the trap slows a team down.|
The trap is thus accomplishing three things: it's limiting/eliminating offensive creativity by forcing play into a particular area of the ice, it's slowing down the pace of the game and negating any potential speed advantage in terms of on-ice personnel, and most importantly, it's encouraging the player with the puck to relinquish possession.
If the defense conjures up a turnover, then the players already in the neutral zone can immediately switch to offense, a tactic that generally creates up an odd-man situation and thus an offensive opportunity in transition.
At worst, the defending team can slide back, retrieve the dumped puck, and still attempt to create an odd-man break via a structured breakout.
There are three general ways to beat the trap. The method most conducive to the Penguins' roster composition is essentially a give-and-go through the center of the ice.
In this play, a defenseman passes the puck to a Pittsburgh player already stationed in the neutral zone. That player then feeds a quick one-time pass to a teammate already moving with significant speed through the trap area, and upon receiving the puck, the pass recipient is able to fly past the flat-footed defensemen at the blue and generate an immediate scoring chance (or at worst achieve a zone entry with possession).
The obvious shortcoming is that a failed tip-pass or the like can easily set up the defending team in a counterattack.
Similarly, the second way to beat the trap is the aforementioned dump and chase. I've written about the tactic at length before, and while the maneuver does allow for overload opportunities upon a successful retrieval, the mere act of dumping/chipping means that the Penguins would be taking the puck off of their stick and potentially onto the opponents' blades.
|The statue outside of Consol represents a trap-busting play|
The third way to beat the trap also plays into the Penguins' possible wheelhouse, but it's the most risky of the three. In short, a skilled player can win one or two individual battles by way of fancy stickhandling, at which point the trap immediately collapses and a chance to score is imminent.
Depending on how the Penguins stack their lineup, they have anywhere from 3 to 5 skaters capable of slicing through a defense (Crosby, Malkin, Perron, Letang, and Pouliot). The success rate of moving through the trap hinges upon the puck-carrier's skating speed, and so this tactic can only apply situationally (specifically, the right player with the right amount of speed catching the trap in such a way that only one defender needs beaten).
If the Penguins are unable to do any of these three things, then the end-result is likely the same as Tuesday night's: a boring, painful and frustrating affair to watch where the ultimate result is the Penguins coming up on the short end of the proverbial hockey stick.