WITNESS FOR THE DEFENSE
VOORHEES, N.J. – Remember how for many, many years, Philadelphia hockey fans chortled and complained that the New Jersey Devils were ruining hockey when they ran the neutral zone trap for all those years?
It was frustrating to watch. Give Marty Brodeur a one-goal lead and you were in trouble. Give him a two-goal lead, and it was lights out. Yeah, it made the game of hockey sleep-inducing. Yeah, it made the blood boil.
But it was effective.
Then came the lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 season. Afterward, rule changes were put into effect that were designed to render the trap obsolete – because it was rooted in so much clutching and grabbing through the neutral zone.
But, coaches are smart – and they’ve found ways to bring the trap back, albeit through hybrid variations of the original Devils trap.
One of the more popular versions in today’s game is the 1-3-1 forecheck that forces the play to one side of the neutral zone, with the hope of creating turnovers.
It’s a pretty efficient way to slow down a team with good puck-movers or an excellent breakout.
If you can couple the 1-3-1 with a committed defensive presence by blocking shots as well as a confident goaltender, you’re going to be in every game.
And although the Flyers have never been a trapping team, or Peter Laviolette a coach that preaches defense-first, it’s a style that seems to be working for the orange and black.
Since an ugly 5-1 loss in Tampa, the Flyers have made a stronger defensive commitment using this gameplan.
They are 2-2-1 in those five games, but have only given up 11 goals in regulation play in that time.
“We’ve really tried to play that system and play it hard,” said defenseman Nick Grossmann. “It breaks down every once in awhile, but what matters is how you recover. We’ve done a good job of helping each other out when that happens.
“We still have a lot to work on and we can’t lose sight of that. We have to keep doing it in practices and games and keep getting better.”
It’s funny, because the biggest question marks for the Flyers coming into the season were defense and goaltending, and as it turns out, they’ve pretty much been their strengths.
Sure there have been defensive lapses – a couple that have led directly to goals – but others have been thwarted by a white hot goalie name Ilya Bryzgalov.
“Overall we’re playing pretty solid team defense,” said Luke Schenn. “Then when you have a goalie like Bryz behind you making pretty timely saves after little breakdowns – it makes all the difference.”
Consider the following numerical sequence: 2-4-3-1-1-5-2-3-3-1-2. No, it’s not a Fibonacci sequence.
That’s what the Flyers have allowed goal-wise this season if you eliminate empty net and shootout tallies.
That’s 27 goals in 11 games, or 2.45 per game. Last year, the Flyers had the sixth-best record in the NHL and allowed 2.59 goals per game, not counting empty-netters and shootout goals.
That means they’ve shaved .14 off their average from last season, when the Flyers entered the season with a highly touted defensive corps.
For all the criticism, they must be doing something right.
Maybe it’s blocking more shots. The Flyers have stepped in front of 161 shots in 11 games (14.6 per game). That’s tied for seventh-most in the NHL, and is second only to Pittsburgh (165) in the Eastern Conference.
“The guys are buying into the idea of blocking shots and it’s the important details that you need to pay attention to in order to be successful,” said Grossmann, who is tied for ninth in the NHL with 26 blocks. “All of the good teams are blocking shots. It’s a greasy job, but it’s got to be done.”
And it’s getting done with more frequency by these Flyers, who are clawing their way back from a slow start to the season. A win Saturday against Carolina would give the Flyers seven of a possible eight points on this four-game home stand.
And while the Flyers are playing the system that Laviolette has instituted and are reaping the benefits of better defense,, you’d be hard-pressed to get the coach to admit that it’s because of a trap or a more refined defense.
“I don’t think the way to play the game is to sit back in your end and protect and win 1-0,” Laviolette said. “I think the best defense is a good offense. If you get down in the other team’s end… and sustain cycles and zone time, you hope the goals follow that.”
And if they don’t, then it doesn’t hurt to trap the other team to death and get in the way of opposing shots to give your team a chance. It’s been working so far.
To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37