What Is a Neutral Zone Trap in Hockey?

Hockey Rink

The neutral zone trap—also known as the “trap”—is a defensive strategy in hockey, designed to apply extensive pressure to an opposing offense as they try to take the puck through the neutral zone. Loading up the neutral zone with defenders severely inhibits the ability of an offense to get the puck up the ice. More importantly, the high traffic a trap creates allows for a better chance that the puck might be poked free and a turnover created.

The New Jersey Devils of the early- to mid-90s, under Jacques Lemaire, are credited with bringing the neutral zone trap to prominence. The team enjoyed success using the trap because they bought into the idea it would work (and because no one had seen it before). The Devils won the Stanley Cup in ‘95 by being on the same page and trusting one another to do their jobs. What was true then is true today, and the neutral zone trap has become a cornerstone of defensive play across the NHL and around the hockey world. Whether you are in the trap or happen to be facing one, it’s important to remember it is not an infallible tactic; being prepared and disciplined on the ice is essential for playing in or around a trap.

When Will You See a Neutral Zone Trap?

Hockey teams often play a trap defense when they feel outclassed on offense by their opponent. The pressure a trap creates can nullify an opponent’s speed advantage and limit them to predictable, risky passes and movements as they try to break through the neutral zone.  Moreover, keeping players forward in the neutral zone provides quicker chances to place shots on goal if a turnover does occur. Generally, teams keep one forechecker and either three or four players in the neutral zone when performing a trap, leaving little room for the offense to breathe out on the ice.

Common Trap Formations

1-3-1: A 1-3-1 seeks to create a wall at the centerline, to take away passes up the boards and force players inward. The forechecker is tasked with sealing off passing lanes through the middle and forcing the puck carrier out toward the boards. There a defender lies in wait to attempt a poke check or body check in order to free the puck. The back defenseman then can either pursue the free puck, or play back in the zone and help defend the net if the attacking team recovers the puck. Those other players in the wall fill lanes and aim to create chaos for the opposing team in hopes of poking the puck away and/or forcing a turnover.

1-2-2: The 1-2-2 is a bit more forgiving along the boards, but allows the defense to be more reactive when pursuing the puck. The front forward still maintains breakaway and passing lane  duties. Those players on the second and third tiers may have more ground to cover, but this sacrifice allows more defenders to help protect the goal. Moreover, the established lanes down the boards and through the middle of the 1-2-2 make the offense more predictable in their passes, something an aware defenseman can capitalize on.

How to Beat a Neutral Zone Trap

Beating a trap depends on how effectively a team can get its players through it. This is especially true for the 1-3-1, as getting two players through results in a 2-on-1 situation.  A common mistake is trying to pass before players can get through the wall, as it makes them vulnerable to body checking, and then losing the puck. Finding a passing seam through the defense once a player’s teammate gets past the trap is a strategy that can land the offense in an advantageous position. But breaking a neutral zone trap may require some creative play-calling, as it was designed to limit the effectiveness of a team’s transition into the offensive zone. A player out of position or caught pursuing too hard may inadvertently create a gap in the trap, and allow the offense to move freely down the ice. To beat a neutral zone trap is to find the chink in the defense’s proverbial armor, whether it’s a player who isn’t holding up their zone, or a seam left uncovered: Find that gap and break down the wall.

Being a Goalie While Running a Neutral Zone Trap

While a neutral zone trap makes it harder for an offense to get close enough to put shots on goal, the goalie’s job is no less difficult. In fact, the opposite could be said, as a team that can get by a trap usually finds themselves in a less crowded offensive zone. To that end, a goalie cannot stand to relax while their defense is in a trap formation. However disciplined a team is on defense, there will come a time when an offensive player or two find themselves open with the puck in the offensive zone. The nature of the neutral zone trap tends to leave the goalie on an island, which makes using the trap a bit of a high risk/high reward defensive system. Like other players, the goalie must play with discipline, and understand that while they may see fewer shots, the ones they do face will likely be in a breakaway or 2 versus 1 scenario.

Consult our blog to learn valuable ways to prepare for a hockey game, and be ready for whatever comes your way—including the neutral zone trap.