When it was confirmed the Rangers and Devils would meet in the first round, a track meet was expected. Both teams had high octane offenses and, while not defensively incompetent, had some concerns in their own end. Yet Games 3 and 4 ended with six total goals and identical 2-1 scores. The Devils neutral zone trap in both games came to the forefront as an adjustment from their two 5-1 losses in Newark. Thus far, the Rangers haven’t been able to solve it.
The Devils neutral zone trap isn’t like the trap in the 90s, when clutch and grab was the primary source of slowing things down, putting all five players in the neutral zone. Instead, this Devils neutral zone trap still sends one man in on the forecheck, but leaves four guys back in a passive 1-2-2 forecheck.
The positioning of F2 and F3 on the Devils neutral zone trap is closer aligned to a 1-2-2 than a 1-4 conservative forecheck that Devils teams of the past would run. The passive 1-2-2 pictured here shows more of a standard 1-2-2, with F1 deep and F2/F3 just inside the blue line. A more aggressive 1-2-2 would see F2/F3 around the tops of the circles.
Instead, we are seeing the Devils neutral zone trap in the form of a passive 1-2-2, where F2/F3 are behind the blue line, and D1/D2 are between the red line and their own blue line. This gives the Rangers free reign to get out of their own zone, something they used to struggle with, but once they hit the neutral zone, they can’t get anything going.
Solving the Devils neutral zone trap
Unfortunately, the Rangers seem to be trying the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, which is the definition of insanity. Unable to generate speed through the neutral zone, they are left with two realistic options.
The first is continued puck support with multiple options. We saw this on the powerplay, with the Rangers opening up drop pass options if they didn’t like what they saw. This is a little risky given the Devils speed and ability to force turnovers, especially since F1 is still in the picture on a drop pass. The other concern is that aside from Adam Fox, no other defenseman is capable of leading a rush like this consistently.
The other option is to commit to a dump and chase style of play, and to truly commit to it. That means actually chasing the puck, winning a puck battle, and starting a cycle. Only the Kid Line has done this consistently and with any success. Vincent Trocheck and Chris Kreider have been doing some dirty work in the top six, but it has been fizzling out with a softball shot from the top of the circles or simply not having enough puck support deep.
Crisis of confidence
The Rangers are suffering a crisis of confidence brought about by the Devils neutral zone trap. They perhaps got too confident, borderline cocky, after their dual 5-1 wins in Newark. The extra pass was in their game in the offensive zone, and they allowed a rookie netminder to have a much easier path to their first 2-1 win at MSG.
Unable to solve Akira Schmid with the extra pass, the Rangers instead went to a more patient, or perhaps passive, style of play in Game 4. Unfortunately patient and passive are not synonymous in this situation. Patience means waiting out your opponent and striking when the chance is there. Passive, which is what the Rangers are doing, is waiting out the game and not switching to an aggressive style when the situation calls for it.
Passiveness can be a sign that confidence is lacking. After all, the Rangers have scored just twice in two games, and none on the powerplay. Instead of attacking the game and forcing the issue, they are stepping back and letting the Devils win puck battles. The Devils neutral zone trap is certainly an input, as lack of confidence grows from frustration and inability to break through the neutral zone with speed.
One good bounce is all it takes though, as the Rangers haven’t gotten one since Kreider’s lucky bounce of Vitek Vanacek’s arm in Game 2. They need something. A spark. A bounce. A helmet toss. Something. Combining a crisis of confidence with severely lacking offense is a surefire way to lose in six.