Just as the New Jersey Devils popularized the defensive system known as the neutral zone trap in winning the 1995 Stanley Cup in a stunning four-game upset of the heavily favored Detroit Red Wings, the Red Wings in June used a similar "secret weapon" when they swept the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1997 Cup finals.
Although it wasn't employing the trap, Detroit utilized a defensive scheme called the "left-wing lock" that not only shut down the physically superior Flyers, but also completely frustrated the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference finals.
What exactly is the left-wing lock and why were the Red Wings so successful with it?
The main objective of the left-wing lock is to prevent an odd-man rush by always having one forward back along with the two defensemen when the opposition is breaking out. With the left wing covering or "locking up" the opposing winger on the breakout -- hence the name of the scheme -- the defensemen are free to more aggressively confront the two attacking forwards, giving the defending team a better chance of causing a quick turnover, creating an odd-man advantage and, thus, a scoring opportunity.
Even though the system is called the left-wing lock, the left winger will not always be the man hovering back near the blueline to provide defensive cover while his team attacks. For example, if Red Wings center Kris Draper and left wing Kirk Maltby enter the Flyers' offensive zone first, right wing Darren McCarty will need to be aware of this and may need to cover Maltby's normal spot high in the offensive zone. But once the initial rush is complete and if Maltby is able to return to his normal position near the blueline, McCarty can then venture deep into the offensive zone. The system requires a lot of concentration and communication among the forwards to maintain its effectiveness.
Disrupting the attack
ESPN analyst Barry Melrose said, "When playing the left-wing lock, your defense would have nothing worse than a three-on-three situation 99 percent of the time. Those three defenders (the two defensemen and the left winger) stand up, most of the time before the blueline, and it takes the speed away from the offensive team. As that is happening, the two guys that are backchecking are coming back as hard as they can. They are picking up men from behind while they are closing in on the puckcarrier. So the combination of the three guys back slowing down the rush with the two backcheckers coming back with speed many times creates a situation where, if they don't dump the puck in, they will turn the puck over and, bang, you now have a transition play going the other way."
Said Hockey Night In Canada commentator Greg Millen: "In the recent Stanley
Cup finals, many times all of the Flyers would be coming out of their defensive zone with the puck, but they would need to stop and go the other way after turning the puck over to the Red Wings; while Detroit, which has a lot more team speed, is [suddenly] counterattacking, and that is why there were so many man-advantage breaks against Flyer goalies Ron Hextall and Garth Snow."
Although the left-wing lock and neutral zone trap are associated with American teams, Millen said those schemes actually originated in Europe.
Compared to the left-wing lock, the neutral zone trap is a more conservative system where four or all five of the defenders are positioned in the neutral zone when the opposition is breaking out. The trap puts little pressure on the puckcarrier in his own zone, but limits the puckcarrier's options once he crosses his blueline. The trap is utilized more by teams that don't possess the offensive weapons that Detroit has, such as the Devils in 1995, or some of the recent expansion teams. In either system, though, the goal of the trapping or locking team is forcing a quick turnover to create an offensive opportunity of its own.
Dedication from the entire team, especially the forwards, is the most vital ingredient to successfully implementing the left-wing lock, Hard working forwards are a must to make the system work, and even though the Red Wings were using the same system two years earlier when they were swept in the finals by New Jersey, the same work ethic wasn't there. Even Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman admits that his offensive production has suffered this season, largely due to his and the team's total dedication to coach Scotty Bowman's defensive system. Although Detroit won 24 fewer regular-season games this year compared to last, and Yzerman scored only 20 goals in 96-97 as compared to 36 goals in '95-96, the Red Wings were obviously much more effectivecome playoff time.
Said Fox analyst Craig Simpson, "What Detroit did so well, especially in the finals against Philadelphia, is that they always had a ... guy as a [defensive] safety valve, no matter what, even when they are moving up the ice. It's not like they are a passive hockey team. They still create offensive opportunities, they send men in and they go after you. But whenever there is a possibility of a transition from offense to defense, immediately they would always have a third guy high .
"If you watched the Stanley Cup finals series verses Philly, Detroit implemented this defensive strategy to perfection. There was just no room for Philly in the neutral zone. Every time Philly got a transition rush, they were always up against a minimum of three guys, and a lot of times the fourth guy was coming back and taking away the puckcarrier. So there really wasn't an open Flyers player to get the puck to, and what Detroit was hoping for in this situation was for Philly to start making cross-ice passes, where the Red Wings could pick off the pass and then they make another offensive rush."
Melrose, former coach of the Los Angeles Kings, said he prefers the left-wing lock to the trap because it allows you to have two forecheckers.
"It is a much more aggressive style," he said. "You are still forcing the opposition to make passes under pressure, but yet you still have men back so you are not giving up outnumbered chances. So I think you will see more teams try the left-wing lock, but you'll still have a lot of teams playing the trap. There are many different styles, but whatever team wins the Stanley Cup, the system they use becomes the defense of the day."
Jim Stevens, a former college ice hockey player, is a Colorado-based
freelance writer who writes for a variety of sports publications.
This first appeared in the September/1997 issue of Hockey
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Posted: Feb 23, 2006, 18:52
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