Slava Fetisov passed the puck to Detroit Red Wing teammate Ray
Sheppard, who flipped it right back to Fetisov, as Sergei Brylin
of the New Jersey Devils kept a wary eye on this private game of
yo-yo deep in the Detroit zone. New Jersey had a one-goal lead
with about 6-1/2 minutes to go in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup
finals last Saturday, and it was time for the Red Wings to make
their move, to protect their unbeaten home record in the
playoffs, to touch off an octopus cloudburst, to take another
step toward the prize that has eluded Detroit for 40 years. But
the Red Wings, like the puck, were going nowhere. They couldn't
get out of their zone. They couldn't even get out of their own
way. In the last nine minutes Detroit had just one shot on goal.
One. When the Wings skated out on a two-on-two with 2:50
remaining, the Joe Louis Arena crowd erupted as if Detroit had a
breakaway. Against the team that takes a 200-by-85-foot rink and
turns it into a postage stamp, a two-on-two is a breakaway.
"There wasn't much room to roam around," said Detroit coach
Scott Bowman after the Red Wings lost 2-1.
"Their defense is good, their system is good. You saw the
problems we had," Detroit's Steve Yzerman said of the Devils.
"They controlled the neutral zone, and we were getting foiled in
our own end."
The moral of the story is, do not get into a breath-holding
contest with the Devils. You will turn blue before they do.
New Jersey won Game 1 on Claude Lemieux's goal at 3:17 of the
third period, the startling 14th playoff game-winner of his
career, but this series is more than a tussle for the right to
skate a lap with the world's largest champagne glass. This
series is about the very soul of the game. In a sporting
adaptation of the Faust legend, the Devil is trying to sap the
vitality from the NHL with a forechecking system that is called
the neutral-zone trap. This series, which was to continue on
Tuesday night in Detroit, isn't circle-the-wagons hockey versus
fire-wagon hockey, because the Red Wings have blended plenty of
defense into their game this year, but the demarcation between
styles is still clear enough. In a league eager to traffic in
excitement, to market itself as North America's happening sport,
the juxtaposition of the often dynamic Detroit attack with New
Jersey's center-ice ambush amounts to a best-of-seven series
between good and evil.
June 25, 1995
"Good versus evil?" New Jersey right wing Tom Chorske mused.
"And we're the Devils. Ironic."
Actually the Devils are not such bad guys for -- as Roseanne
Roseannadana used to say on Saturday Night Live -- people from
New Jersey. The lack of attention the Devils receive as the
"third" team in the New York metropolitan area has given coach
Jacques Lemaire a controlled environment in which to install his
system. If it were up to Lemaire, a sly man who thinks the
alphabet starts with X and O, he would work in a laboratory
smock and lock the doors to the arena so his players wouldn't be
disturbed by inconsequential matters, such as attention from
fans or media.
The neutral-zone trap, of course, is all about control. "The way
we're playing is control," Lemaire says. "When we know what the
opponent will do, we're O.K."
For nonpuckheads, here is a primer on the Devil version of the
trap, hockey's newest four-letter word: The New Jersey
forechecker, usually the center, forces the puck carrier toward
the boards, where he is intercepted by a Devil winger. The
weak-side winger then clogs the middle along with the two
defensemen, who cut off the passing lanes. Suddenly the neutral
ice looks like a New Jersey mall the Saturday before Christmas.
The puck carrier, now snared in the trap, can knock the puck
ahead along the boards and risk turning it over or icing it, or
he can return the puck to the other defenseman, or he can try to
hit a forward breaking through the middle. New Jersey preys on
those passes, counterattacking off interceptions of them. Or it
forces opponents back into their zone for the privilege of
having another chance to bang their heads against a wall.
Lemaire, a Hall of Famer who won eight Stanley Cups as a two-way
center with the Montreal Canadiens from 1967 to '79, hardly grew
the trap in a petri dish. The forechecking scheme, which can be
used whenever an opponent has to clear from deep within its own
zone, has been around for decades. The difference in the Devils'
scheme, other than the New Age name, is that New Jersey's
forechecker often doesn't go in as deep or as aggressively.
"Montreal's been trapping for 40 years," says Pierre Page, the
former Quebec Nordique coach and general manager who now scouts
for the Toronto Maple Leafs. "Montreal always forced you to the
boards and locked the middle. But people forgave them because
they had great offensive players and they won 24 Stanley Cups."
These Devils are no fluke. They are a trend. They lost Game 7 of
the Eastern Conference finals in double overtime to the eventual
champion New York Rangers last year and were the only 1994 final
four team to make it that far again this spring. Their trap
works as both defense and offense. Last season the dogged Devils
converted so many turnovers into goals that they were the
second-highest scoring team in the league. "We've heard the
cries of alarm about the trap, but I don't think any style is
bad for hockey -- especially given how New Jersey executes,"
says NHL senior vice president Brian Burke. "The Devils are big,
they hit, they go to the net. They're one of the most
belligerent teams, and belligerence is what makes for
The problem isn't New Jersey as much as it is Devil worship.
Eighteen of the 26 teams already use the trap, Page says, and he
guesses the number will be 21 or 22 if the Devils win the Cup.
The NHL is nothing if not imitative. The Big Bad Bruins of the
early 1970s begat Philadelphia's Broad Street Bullies. When the
New York Islanders finally were supplanted by the Edmonton
Oilers in the mid-'80s, the Oilers' fluid European-style game
became the rage. Now the trap seems to be the flavor of the
decade. "If it works in the NHL," Lemaire says, "you'll see more
junior teams and teams in the American and International leagues
"The trap could choke hockey to death," Sheppard says. "With all
the money people spend on tickets, they want to see [Wing
defenseman] Paul Coffey skating with the puck, end-to-end rushes
and goals, not the trap."
The NHL craves attention, but it doesn't want tedium to be the
message. Page says, "All you're getting is counterattacking.
It's awful for fans, and you're not developing skill in young
players when you teach this style." Former Bruin coach Mike
Milbury, who is now an analyst for ESPN, views the trap as if it
were some noxious swamp gas and blasts it regularly. "Yeah,
we're getting it a lot from fired coaches," says one of the
Devils, who no doubt had Milbury's TV partner, former Los
Angeles King coach and trap critic Barry Melrose, in mind.
"Maybe they want a job so they can install their systems."
All the swipes at New Jersey swamp hockey have exasperated a
number of Devils. "We've talked about it a million times,"
defenseman Ken Daneyko says. "We've never heard the word trap in
our locker room once. A trap to me is the San Jose Sharks or the
Florida Panthers, who get outshot 45-20 and hang on to win 3-2
or 2-1. We outshoot everybody. We outchance everybody." New
Jersey left wing Stephane Richer, who scored a goal in Game 1,
says, "People say that the style we play isn't exciting or
spectacular, but I like to say that a lot of teams would want to
be where we are today."
Standard trap-busting strategies include 1) having the
defenseman or winger reverse the puck to the far boards before
the trap can reset on that side, 2) curling a forward behind the
forechecker for a pass up the middle, and 3) beating the
forechecker with a speedy puck carrier. But Bowman says
improvisation can also break a trap, and in Game 1 the Red Wings
often interfered with the New Jersey forechecker in addition to
trying doors number 1, 2 and 3. Detroit was effective the first
10 minutes, averting the trap by keeping the puck in the Devil
end most of the time, but the Red Wings still were outshot 4-2.
"All you had to do was look up at the shot clock to see what
was happening," Red Wing center Kris Draper says.
New Jersey limited Detroit to 17 shots in Game 1, five fewer
than the Wings' previous season low. It was the fourth
consecutive playoff game in which the Devils permitted fewer
than 20 shots. Not only were the Red Wings trapped, they were
cursed. Detroit center Keith Primeau left in the second period
with what Bowman called a wrenched back, and even if Primeau can
return, the Red Wings are suspect up the middle now that their
top three centermen are hurting. Yzerman still looks stiff after
undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery following the second round,
while Sergei Fedorov, who separated his left shoulder in the
Western Conference finals, is a shadow of the player who was the
NHL's best in 1993-94.
The Devils have been called a lot of things. The Kansas City
Scouts for starters, which is how the franchise was born 21
years ago. Two years later they were called the Colorado
Rockies. They were also called Mickey Mouse by Wayne Gretzky in
1983, and they might be called the Nashville Whatevers next
season if owner John McMullen lams it for a sweetheart deal in
the South. But this team is tough enough to take the insults. If
the Devils turn out to be the villains of this series, the Team
That Trapped a Stanley Cup, they will brush it off as easily as
they did the Wings in the endgame of the opener. "I don't offend
easily," Devil forward John MacLean says. "I've played in Jersey
12 years, you know."