Saturday, 14 May 2011

1-3-1: The New Trap

He's the man with the plan. Pictured to the left is Guy Boucher, the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and he has the Lightning one series away from competing in their second Stanley Cup Final. Boucher's success started in the AHL with the Hamilton Bulldogs, but it moved into the NHL when GM Steve Yzerman chose Boucher as his first head coach. While the transition started off well, there were a few rocky patches that the Lightning head coach needed to work out, and it appears that his decision to employ the 1-3-1 defensive system is now paying off in spades as the Lightning open the Eastern Conference Final tonight.

I've watched the Lightning use this system with great success, and it occurred to me that it's not unlike the 1-2-2 trap used in the old days of the NHL or the "left wing lock" that the Detroit Red Wings used in building their dynasty through the late-1990s and 2000s. In fact, it's eerily similar to both of those options, but the three men playing in the middle of the trap create an odd-man situation in the opposite direction if they create a turnover. Giving the puck up just outside your blueline normally ends up in the back of the net, so you can see how effective the 1-3-1 can be.

For seven straight games, the Lightning haven't lost. That says a lot about how successful it is. In winning these seven, they battled back from a 3-1 deficit against Pittsburgh to win that series, and they swept the highly-touted Washington Capitals out of the playoffs in the second round. So how are they beating teams that, on paper, may have more talent than the Lightning? How does this system allow them to knock off a former Stanley Cup champion in the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the four-time reigning Southeast Division champions?

First, it is a system that is designed to create turnovers and to protect bigger, slower defencemen. The quick forwards of the Lightning can play in the middle of the 1-3-1, and cause mayhem and nightmares by picking off errant passes and high-risk passes. The Lightning caused the Capitals a ton of grief with their speed and transition game. Japers' Rink, a well-written Capitals blog, has a very good write-up on how this 1-3-1 system slayed the giant. Highly-recommended read, especially if you are a hockey coach or a hockey player.

Looking at Boston's defence, they don't have a very fleet-of-foot offensive defenceman that can carry the puck down the ice. Tomas Kaberle has been anything but effective thus far with the Bruins, but he might be the best choice by default. If Chara was faster, he essentially could skate the puck of the zone and use his size to protect it, but he's not going to win many races. Looking at Boston's blueliners, they may be better to try to transition the puck to one of their speedier forwards.

If I'm head coach Claude Julien, I'm telling my forwards and defencemen to wait it out. Someone will make a mistake when the Lightning roll out the 1-3-1. It's not like they haven't been scored on in these playoffs, but forcing the puck into the trap is nothing but a lesson in futility. If the openings aren't there, the Bruins can't just skate their way through the neutral zone without expecting bad results.

The Bruins should rely on the dump-in to the corner away from goaltender Dwayne Roloson. The Bruins can cycle very well with their speed and bigger bodies, and need to establish themselves as the physical team in the corners. Get the puck in deep, use their speed from Marchand, Peverley, Krejci, and Paille to retrive the puck, and then start the cycle. Bring a guy like Lucic or Horton in, and have the bigger bodies crash and bang the smaller Tampa Bay forwards.

If Boston wants to win this series, they're going to have to grind out four very hard-fought wins in very unspectacular fashion. It won't be pretty, but the 1-3-1 is an effective tool that has made the Lightning a much better team. After all, the whole is greater than the parts with the Lightning, but they have used this 1-3-1 system to eliminate two very good teams. Boston could be the third if they don't breakdown this system each and every time down the ice.

The only way to beat the system is to force the Lightning not to play it. It won't be easy, but the Bruins have the goaltending and scoring to pull this out. The only question is which of those two factors will called upon more often.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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