The Tampa Bay Lightning are one of the best transition teams in hockey, and it's all thanks to the 1-3-1 trap system implemented by Guy Boucher when he took over as head coach last season.
It's not a hard system to comprehend, if you're unfamiliar. When the opposition prepares to breakout of their own zone with the puck, the Lightning position one man near each blue line and three along the red line. Once the opposition crosses into the neutral zone, that front man attacks the puck carrier, and from there, it's extremely difficult to break through.
It's the essence of the trap. It forces turnovers and chances for your team in transition, and it stymies anything that resembles offense for the attacking team. Just getting the puck into the offensive zone can seem like an epic struggle, and getting set up in the offensive zone? Well, that seems almost impossible.
The trap is brilliant defensive strategy, but it's also absolutely horrible to watch. It's why so many people ridiculed the New Jersey Devils for years, and still do to an extent today. It's why Peter Laviolette decided to be even more boring on Wednesday night, opting not to go up against the trap at all.
After all, why should he just give the puck up? If the Bolts are going to wait for the Flyers to cross into the neutral zone, why should Philly play right into it? It's akin to knowing that pizza box is rigged with explosives, and that as soon as you open it it's going to explode in your face -- but, ah, whatever, you're hungry and that pizza smells damn good.
it's apparent that Laviolette wasn't really in a pizza mood on Wednesday night.
It's not the first time the Flyers have tried this, after a few unsuccessful attempts last season. It does take quite a bit of will power to just stand there with the puck in the middle of an NHL game, and last season the Flyers were unable to keep it up to the extent they did on Wednesday.
And as Pierre McGuire alluded to in that video clip, the Washington Capitals and coach Bruce Boudreau attempted this same strategy to a lesser extent throughout the season last year as well. It's not exactly groundbreaking, but Wednesday's chess match was the most extreme instance of this happening to be sure.
It had a very Roger Neilson-esque feel to it. Neilson, the late, brilliant NHL coaching mind, was always one to find wrinkles in the rules, and that's exactly what Laviolette did here. He drilled the idea into the heads of his players that they were absolutely not allowed to enter that Lightning trap, so that's what the Flyers did.
They sat there.
At first glance, you'd have to say it backfired, as the first two or three times the Flyers tried it. Defensive zone faceoffs aren't a good thing, and Philly had to deal with several of them as a result of this tactic. But after the first commercial break, when the officials realized they didn't know the rule here, they called Toronto and got clarification.
Laviolette talked about that clarification after the game. It was a little confusing.
"It needs some clarification," Laviolette said. "The first one, they said the puck needs to be moving. We were moving on the second one and blown again. They straightened it out."
It really appears as though the NHL was just kind of making this up as they went along, but as it turns out, there's a rule on the books that says the Flyers can't do what they did. Rule 72.1, which I had never read until this Thursday morning:
72.1 Refusing or Abstaining from Playing the Puck - The purpose of this section is to enforce continuous action and both Referees and Linesmen should interpret and apply the rule to produce this result.
The section then specifically addresses situations involving hand passes, icing, high sticking and delayed penalties, but doesn't cover the situation the officials were forced to deal with thanks to the Flyers. There's that section there in 72.1 though that ensures "continuous action" at the discretion of the officials, and that seems to be enough to at least blow the play dead as they originally did.
That's probably where the requirement to move the puck around comes in, which the Flyers abided by after the officials talked to the bench. It seems as though they weren't actually making this up as they went along, after all.
That's the question, then. If the Flyers can just pass the puck back and forth in their own end and be in compliance with the rule, that's clearly not a good thing. It takes away from the game, and people aren't going to pay for that nonsense. The problem with any sort of rule change that would crack down on the Flyers' strategy here is that it would reinforce the use of trap, something that's also boring as molasses.
In the end, maybe no rule change is necessary. Eventually on Wednesday night, the Lightning did indeed send that first guy in on the forecheck, and that's when the Flyers initiated their break out.
It look bad for a few stretches, especially there early in the first period and on national television. But eventually, the Flyers were able to break that trap with their stall tactics. Seems like a win-win, really.
Morning Skate is a daily NHL column. It runs Monday through Friday. Check the archives.