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Neutral zone nightmares
Trap the trap
2/2/09 - By Steve Flores

With about two and a half months left in the season the San Jose Sharks will soon be readying themselves for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Everyone will soon be sitting with baited breathe and crossing fingers, legs and toes in hopes that the Bay Area's hockey franchise will be able to break past their usual second round departure.

People are wondering which team they may draw in the first round etc. The Western Conference is loaded with quality teams. Any team that the Sharks will confront will present problems. That is why I am not overly concerned with 'who' they play as much as in 'what' they will have to contend with.

In simple terms the Sharks are going to have to contend with that which I feel is the biggest bane in the modern NHL: The Neutral Zone Trap.

Yeah, yeah I know that league officials and even some fans will scoff at me and say that the referees call holding and hooking and blah, blah, blah. The truth is that it is called, but not nearly as often as it should be.

I am not going to go into definitive detail regarding 'the trap'. As most of you know it is a method of defense employed (between the blue lines) where the defensive team positions all or nearly all of its players (forwards high - defensemen low) between those blue lines.

This very effective bottleneck style of defense takes the zip and speed away from skill teams and drastically cuts down on offensive flow. The league trend towards this style became so rampant, during the 1990's and early 2000 season's, that the league instructed the referees to call more hooking and holding penalties in the neutral zone. These two misdemeanors are an inevitable part of the trapping style. The emphasis on these calls began when play resumed after the lockout. The problem is that, as time has gone on, teams have begun to go back to this style of defense.

Think it's not rampant? Think I am making this stuff up? Look around the league. It may shock you to know that one of the league's most respected offensive teams - The Pittsburgh Penguins- are now using the trap. Yes, folks the team that has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin has reverted to a defensive style of play. The Penguins were suffering offensively and Head Coach Michael Therrien saw fit to install a more defensive method to compensate for the teams lack of forward power. The Penguins win percentage has grown since the trap was installed.

The Sharks have faced several teams (Vancouver being the most glaring example) that have employed the trap against them. The Canucks basically played a 6 Goalie side, got a lead of 1-0 and attempted to trap the Sharks to death. The game was unfit to watch and fittingly the Sharks managed to claw out a win against a Vancouver side that did everything they could to not lose, rather than doing their utmost to try and win. I am not gonna argue with the pundits that claim that Vancouver did what they had to do to win. My issue here is that the Sharks speed, size and skill is heavily neutralized when confronted with a team that can trap and trap well.

The Calgary Flames are a burr in the Sharks fin. They play gritty, hard, controlled and yes, downright borderline dirty at times. That is hockey. Mix in the fact that they can clog the neutral zone with the best of em and that spells trouble for the Sharks.

Traditionally fewer penalties are called in the post-season. That is always the case folks. With fewer penalties being called then it is logical to assume that the trap will be an effective weapon that teams will use against San Jose . Don't for a minute think that all of the other franchises aren't aware of the difficulties of dealing with the trap.

The Ghoul of hockey is alive and well and the monster's reach is growing. Shark's Head Coach Todd McLellan is surely aware of the 'what if's' and 'what might's' of the post season. Here is hoping that he has some trick up his sleeve that can find an answer to the problems presented by the defensive scheme that may well be the reason that sees the Sharks once again eliminated earlier than its fans, players and team management are hoping for. The neutral zone trap may present as big a problem as the Detroit Red Wings or the Boston Bruins.



Contact Steve at stevybo@yahoo.com
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