SAINT-LAZARE, QC — Continuing in my series of coaching features, this part is always the most difficult to comprehend. From the casual fan to the most devoted coach, understanding the correct use of the neutral zone is a topic of considerable debate.
To go over a little bit of hockey history, before the red line was removed from the game, the neutral zone was a focal point for any and all offensive and defensive strategies. If you controlled the area between the two blue lines, more often than not, you won your game. Jacques Lemaire used the neutral zone to formulate his trap strategies. These ideas became the norm by which all NHL teams created their team philosophies. Others, like Scotty Bowman, used the neutral zone more as a point of attack. He believed that going backwards into the neutral zone and reorganizing your offensive attack was a small price to pay for maintaining puck possession.
While both ideas had their merits, they also had their share of doubters. Many would argue with Coach Bowman that going backwards isn’t the best offensive strategy. Others would vilify Lemaire for slowing the game to a crawl, limiting the amount of shots on goal, and just taking the excitement out of hockey.
Looking at it from a pure coaching perspective, aren’t coaches paid to win? If that’s the case, then both Bowman and Lemaire created strategies that not only were Stanley Cup winning formulas, but also were essential in the formulation of today’s game.
Nowadays, control of the neutral zone is still the single most important part of gaining any sort of advantage on your opponent. While the old trapping styles of the 1990s and early 2000s have been abandoned by most, some still believe that the trap can still work. Although coaches now engage their defensive systems using the defensive blue line as a reference, the ideas are still the same. This can also be said about regrouping. Now that the red line no longer factors into play, teams can regroup as far back as their own zone without fear of being offside on a long stretch pass.
This brings us to our original question. Why is the neutral zone the MOST important part of the ice to control?
Well, let’s start from the defensive side of things. Using a standard 1-2-2 forecheck, many teams can pressure their opponents in the neutral zone, forcing them into a dump and chase situation. This can be defensively helpful from two sides:
1- Pressuring the opposition on their side of the red line forces them to relinquish possession of the puck in an attempt to get behind the defense and regain possession in the offensive zone.
2- In 80% of most dump and chase situations, the puck must be dumped into the offensive for the offensive teams’ own side of centre ice, causing an icing.
From an offensive perspective, control the neutral zone allows for a multitude of situations. It will force the defensive team to change the defensive coverage, which in turn creates gaps in the offensive zone. Also, if properly engaged, the offensive team can stretch the defense out by using one or two players in the neutral zone to open up spaces in coverage, and attack with greater speed. A prime example of this happened at this year’s World U-20 Hockey Championships. In the gold medal game, with Team Russia behind 3-0 in the third period, they threw caution to the wind, using two forwards in the neutral zone. With Team Canada’s inability to change their forechecking scheme from a 2-1-2 with a soft rim to a 1-2-2, the Russians feasted on their opportunities, and snatched the gold medal from Canada’s grasp.
While every facet of today’s game is dissected and analyzed to every extreme, the use of the neutral zone is the key ingredient in success. If the middle of the ice is in your team’s control, wins will be easier to come by than losses.
(Feature image by Dave Sidaway, Montreal Gazette)