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The 1-3-1 Neutral Zone Trap Explained


Even the most casual hockey observer has probably heard of the neutral zone trap. Most recently, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s brand of the neutral zone trap, the 1-3-1, gained some notoriety in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Tampa wasn’t going to attack deep into the Flyer’s zone, and the Flyers weren’t going to attack the big, bad, scary neutral zone trap. The result was about 30 seconds of nothing and then a referee stopping play. (I tend to think the onus is on the offense to do something here, but that’s not the subject of this post.)

So what exactly is the neutral zone trap? I have probably an average hockey IQ, and thanks to many versions of hockey video games over the years, I understand the basics of most of the strategies. But I’d never heard of the 1-3-1 and never had a full understanding of the neutral zone trap. So I set out on a quest of knowledge and have returned here with the results.

First off, we have to describe what the more generic term “neutral zone trap” is. Basically, it’s a defensive alignment that tries to take away passing lanes in the neutral zone and cause a turnover. The trap can have different alignments like the 1-2-2 or the 1-3-1 (more on those numbers in a moment). A trap is more of a passive defense with little risk, focused primarily on defense.

The numbers in a hockey strategy refer to the position of the players. See the diagram below: 400w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" />

The Tampa Bay Lightning's version of the neutral zone trap is known as the Tampa T, because, well, that's what it looks like from above in the diagram.

The forward on the right is the first “1”. His goal is to forecheck and pressure opponents to either side of the rink, towards the boards.

If this is accomplished, the “3” gravitate to that side (i.e. puck side attack in NHL12). They further block off passing lanes and prevent the puck carrier from skating undeterred into his offensive zone. Ideally they seek to force a turnover or a dump-in. Remember that the offense needs to get to the center red line before they can dump the puck in, otherwise it’s icing. This wall of 3 moves as one and attacks the offense at or before the red line.

This leaves the last “1”, or the back defenseman as a sort of sweeper, picking up pucks or chasing down a dump-in.

Done properly, the 1-3-1 trap-style defense can smother an offense and lead to some boring-ass hockey. There are ways to beat it, however.

The problem that the 1-3-1 causes is partially because it slows down play in the neutral zone. Opponents can get stuck waiting to not go offside at the blue line; their momentum can get totally stopped. When this happens and the offense is forced to dump the puck in, it’s hard for the forwards to get back up to speed and chase down the puck. This is what happens when the 1-3-1 is working.

But here’s the flipside of the 1-3-1: with only 1 defenseman back, if you can beat him you can set up a scoring chance. So… to beat the 1-3-1, a defenseman needs to get close to the red line. He can dump it in with a forward redirecting it so the play doesn’t get called for icing. Meanwhile, the other 2 forwards should be hitting the blue line with speed… right past the 1 defenseman who has to execute a back-to-front transition and pick up speed again and who is outnumbered.

That’s it in a nutshell. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out (and give link love to) a couple of great sites where I got some of this information. Check these out for more info:

 The 411 on the 1-3-1

Idiot’s Guide To Hockey Systems (Forechecking) 

There will be arguments for and against the 1-3-1 and apparently it will be discussed at the NHL’s GM meetings.  Should the NHL legislate against it? If so, how do they do anything about it? Didn’t the post-lockout rules of 2005-2006 seek to address this (i.e. getting rid of the two-line pass)?  If I missed anything, please correct me or add to what I said in the comments.

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