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Flyers vs. Lightning: Why the 1-3-1 trap sucks, and why it doesn't

Tampa Bay Lightning fans are getting awfully defensive defending the boring-as-rocks defensive strategy their team employs. From our pals at SB Nation's Raw Charge:

So Comcast has set the media narrative, as we've seen it on Versus since the 2011 NHL Playoffs when the Tampa Bay Lightning kept surprising the big-shots of the NHL: Guy Boucher is the villain, the 1-3-1 system is evil and bad for the game of hockey. Last night, the Philadelphia Flyers "stood up" for the NHL by avoiding playing hockey at times in order to make a statement against the 1-3-1. The Flyers are heroes!

I have the temptation to blockquote the entire story here, because it's all pretty fantastic, but just go over there and read it instead. Then come back here and follow the little jumpy thing so we can talk about it.

To John's several points:

- The "Comcast media narrative" that the trap is boring: It's not exactly a media-created narrative. Remember that whole NHL Lockout thing, and how after it, there was this whole emphasis on increasing scoring and getting rid of defensive systems like the trap?

Remember how they eliminated the two-line pass? Yeah, had something to do with all this. Stretch out the middle of the ice, more goals will be scored, and the neutral zone trap is able to be defeated. The 1-3-1 trap makes it impossible to stretch the middle of the ice and effectively break out of your own zone.

Media narrative? No, not really. Just boring hockey that hurts the quality of the game. How this isn't something we can all agree on is beyond me.

- That the Tampa Bay Lightning are the "bad guys": I don't think anybody really thinks this. I do think a lot of people rightfully think that they play a God-awfully boring defensive system, though. Nobody is blaming the Lightning for playing that system (except maybe Mike Milbury, but I wasn't aware people still took him seriously). The trap works for them and it's solid hockey strategy.

It's made them one of the toughest teams to beat in the neutral zone, and also one of the most dangerous teams in the NHL in transition. That doesn't mean it's not boring as sin.

- The Flyers couldn't even beat the trap with Tampa missing two top defensemen: Hm, Boucher doesn't always use the trap. But what better time to implement a defensive system that relies more on positioning and less on actual skill than when you're missing two of your top defensive talents?

- That if this happened in a Flyers-Devils game, the trap wouldn't be the story: Somebody must have missed Jacques Lemaire era in New Jersey. We're still talking about how boring the trap-loving Devils were before the lockout.

- The high-scoring Flyers "turtled" when faced with the trap: I used this analogy already over in a story at, but I think it works well. Imagine getting a pizza delivered, and you know that the pizza box is rigged with explosives. When you flip open the box, it's going to explode in your face, and your chances of eating any pizza are going to explode right along with it.

Playing into the 1-3-1 trap is sort of like opening that pizza box. You know you're probably just going to turn the puck over, but hey, screw it. You're hungry and think you can work your way around it and get to the pizza. (Pizza is the offensive zone in this analogy, and if you can tell, I haven't had lunch yet.)

No, playing into the trap is dumb. Your chances of effectively beating it are slim -- why the hell do you think Guy Boucher uses it? And why do you think Peter Laviolette decided he wasn't going to take the bait?

It's not "turtling." It's smart, boring hockey strategy. Just like the trap.


The way you beat the trap is with speed. If players are just stationary in the neutral zone, it's pretty easy to get around them by just blowing right by them. That's part of the reason why the Bolts are so strong at this system -- they're a very fast team and can generally keep up with opponents.

But the biggest problem with trying to beat the 1-3-1 has nothing to do with player skill. It's more related to defensive positioning that's almost impossible to penetrate. Unlike the traditional neutral zone trap, the 1-3-1 essentially throws the two-line pass right back into the rulebook.

Line three defenders up on the red line and you're probably not going to get a pass across that red line. You can carry the puck over the line and if you have speed, you can probably blow past the defenders along the red line. But generating that speed with a guy like Martin St. Louis at the your own blue line is also an effort in futility.

There's not a defenseman in the NHL that's going to be able to beat St. Louis or Teddy Purcell or really anybody for that matter in a foot race when in that position. That's why you need an effective breakout pass to a player with some speed who's positioned behind that first defender. From there, you can start to work around the defensive shell that Tampa has fallen into.

That's how Peter Laviolette and the Flyers want to play the game, but the Lightning trap prevents them from playing their game. Why should they play right into opposition hands when they can just give them a taste of their own medicine?

Getting off that first pass is almost impossible with that one man at the front of the trap just sitting stationary at the blue line, and since you're not going to beat him one-on-one, your only legitimate option is to wait until that first guy comes at you on the forecheck. Otherwise, your chances of beating the trap are pretty slim.

The Flyers were just being smart. It's just as boring as the trap, if not worse, but it's cause/effect. The Lightning playing a trapping system result in the Flyers playing boring hockey. They don't want to play that way -- the Lightning do choose to play that way. Let's not forget which comes first here.


When the rules changed in 2005 and the two-line pass was eliminated, the neutral zone trap basically went with it. Coaches who had once thrived on that system adapted -- look at Lemaire, for example, or Ken Hitchcock. Most adapted to systems that don't rely on plugging up the neutral zone, but they (clearly) didn't all disappear.

Another adaptation is the 1-3-1. It's not the same trap that primarily lived before the lockout, but it's an adaptation that allows a passive defensive system to be effective. It sucks, a lot, and let's not ignore the fact that no matter how effective it is, it's horrible hockey to watch.

The 1-3-1 isn't as prevalent in the NHL today as its ugly cousin was before the lockout. Hell, it wasn't even really all that prevalent in last night's game -- this nonsense didn't happen for 60 straight minutes. And as we noted, the Lightning don't even use it all the time.

So is this really an issue? It's a question up for debate. What happened last night is an issue, but the Flyers are the first team to combat the trap in such an effective manner. Maybe other teams will follow their lead, and if this happens more and more often in future, this will be an issue that needs to be addressed by the league.

For now, though? Eh, a little boring hockey every once in a while isn't the worst thing in the world. Actually good for a laugh or two.