In its most basic form, the neutral zone isn‘t a complicated part of hockey. The area between the blue lines belongs to nobody, so when a player has the puck within those confines, one of two things can happen: possession will either move down toward the opponent’s goal, or the same player will lose the puck and the game will migrate toward his zone.
It’s such an obvious concept that it almost bears no explanation, but as with all things, it’s a little easier said than done. The Michigan hockey team has seen first hand this season how its neutral-zone play can break a game, but in last weekend’s series over Michigan State, the Wolverines finally found a rhythm in no man’s land.
A handful of the Wolverines’ eight goals against the Spartans were set up by smart plays in the neutral zone, be it by forced turnovers or quick passes.
“I think (neutral-zone play this weekend) was pretty important,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “I thought we did a good job of getting it in (Michigan State’s) end and not just dumping it (but) passing it and chipping it. I thought we dictated a lot of the territorial play and a lot of that was because of the neutral zone.”
Hockey box scores don’t track time of possession, but if they did, this weekend’s would have shown a lopsided figure in Michigan’s favor.
And the time of possession all goes back to the decisions the Wolverines made in the neutral zone. The key to playing smart in that area is almost as simple as the concept of the zone itself: don’t get too fancy.
“The key to the neutral zone is just making simple and quick plays,” said senior forward Kevin Lynch. “Not trying to make cute plays at the blue lines, which we’ve done in the past when we’re trying to beat a guy one on one. Just making simple plays whether its getting pucks in deep, or forechecking hard.”
Berenson has time and again singled out Lynch as being one of the team’s most physical forwards who consistently battles well in the neutral zone. But the team’s success there over the weekend stemmed from much more than one forward’s play.
Consider all the decisions that have to be made in the span of about two seconds when the puck enters the neutral zone.
“If I’m a forward and our defenseman has the puck, I’ve got to be working hard to get where I should, so he can get me the puck,” Berenson explained. “But if I have my back turned and I’m drifting away … nobody else might be open (and) I might be the only guy that’s open.”
A forward has to break free, but keep in mind there are three of them on the ice at a time to keep track of. Each has his own duty, but being in sync with the other two is perhaps the greatest challenge associated with playing well in the neutral zone.
“The centerman (has) to be open, he’s got to come down low and give a defensive play,” Berenson said. “The strong-side winger’s got to get up on the boards … then the weak-side winger, he’s got a chance to either come back or look for a seam and go hard across.”
And what if the forwards aren’t in sync? Well, a player can try to dump the puck, but it will probably just end up in his own zone again. Both the defensemen and forwards have equal responsibility for what happens in the neutral zone, and for effective play, there has to be seamless communication between the two corps.
Communication during games can be difficult, though. Which is why, at the end of the day, nothing helps Michigan’s performance between the blue lines more than good old-fashioned practice.
“Hockey is a game of repetition,” Berenson said. “The more you do things, the more you just do them. You can’t think in a game or it’s already too late. You just react, and you react the way you have in practice.”