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VIPERS NOTEBOOK: NOT THRILLED TO BE IN THE ZONE.

Byline: Gideon Rubin Staff Writer

VALENCIA - Under normal circumstances, Junior-B Valencia Vipers coach Brian Murtagh prefers not to employ the much-maligned neutral zone trap, a defense-oriented system designed to suffocate high-scoring fastbreak opponents by clogging up the middle of the rink.

But he had little choice in a recent exhibition game against the nationally ranked Phoenix Polar Bears. Valencia was short-handed with five players out because of suspensions, injuries and illness.

So Murtagh used the strategy and worked it to perfection in a 5-4 victory in arguably one of the biggest moments in franchise history.

Jeff Onstad, a former Ice Station Hockey League standout from Saugus High who recently was acquired from Phoenix, scored the game-winner for Valencia with 23 seconds left in the game.

The Polar Bears are two-time defending national champions and three-time defending Western States Hockey League champions.

The neutral zone trap, developed by the Swedish national team in the 1950s to counter the dominant Soviet national team's superior skating and passing skills, has been criticized in recent years as it's gained prominence in the NHL with several teams, most notably the New Jersey Devils.

The genius of the neutral zone trap is its simplicity, with two forwards hovering around the blue line just behind the center and two defenseman stationed near the red line skating in the same direction clogging up the middle of the ice, forcing opponents to try to push the puck near the boards where their skaters become targets for hard checks.

``It's like a stop sign skating backwards,'' Murtagh said.

Although extremely effective under certain circumstances, as the Vipers proved last week, the system has been disparaged by critics who assert the lethargic playing style it creates is the hockey equivalent of a filibuster.

``People argue that it's killing the game and you know what? They're right,'' Murtagh said.

Murtagh doesn't plan to use the neutral zone trap on a regular basis because he thinks it hinders player development.

``Maybe we could win more games doing that but developing players is what's important at this level,'' Murtagh said.

But he hasn't completely ruled out using it in certain circumstances such as the Phoenix game, when Valencia was without forward and team captain Justin Dyke and defenseman Kent Blaylock (suspensions for involvement in an altercation the previous game), injured forward Gene Johnson (hand) and defenseman Eric Searle (shoulder) and Tyler Jones (food poisoning).

Murtagh said he also would use the neutral zone trap in the playoffs, where winning is emphasized ahead of development.

``Not many coaches use it at the junior level, but it's a useful tool, especially when you're outmanned or outskilled,'' Murtagh said.

--Momentum: The Vipers built their momentum from the Phoenix game with a 7-4 victory over rival Bay City Bombers of Lakewood on Friday in the WSHL opener for both teams.

Dyke and Patrick Hood each scored two goals for Valencia, which rallied from a 3-1 deficit.

The Vipers play at Bay City at 8 p.m. Saturday and play host at 10 a.m. Sunday to the San Diego Surf.

--Injury update: Jones played Friday and scored a goal despite lingering effects of his bout with food poisoning. He's expected to be fully recovered by this weekend. ... Johnson, who had stitches removed from a hand injury he suffered before the start of the season, and Searle, who's made progress rehabilitating from a shoulder injury, are probable for this weekend's games.

--Webcam: All Vipers games will be shown live on the Internet and archived on the team's official Web site: www.valenciavipers.com.

Gideon Rubin, (818) 713-3607

gideon.rubin(at)dailynews.com
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 20, 2004
Words:603
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