The neutral zone in hockey is the area in between the two offensive zones. Two thick blue lines separate the neutral zone from the other zones. The face-off circle is also located in the neutral zone. This circle has the mid-ice line through it. Face-off after goals and periods occur at this spot. There are also four face-off dots at the edges of the zone used for offsides and called-off goals. In the NHL and other leagues, there is usually a logo in the middle of the ice and advertisements throughout the neutral zone.
One important reason for the neutral zone is the offsides rule. Offsides is called when a player touches the puck in their opponent's zone without one skate on or behind the blue line. The result of offsides is a face-off that usually happens on one of the dots in the neutral zone depending on where the infraction occurred. When the offsides results from a pass from the defensive zone, the face-off happens at one of the circles in the defensive zone. As video reviews have become more common in sports, the officials can now look to the tape to review and potentially change an offsides call.
The NHL used to enforce a two-line pass rule. This rule stated that a player was not allowed to pass the puck from their defensive zone across the neutral zone and into the offensive zone. After the 2005 season, the NHL retired the rule in the hopes of generating more offense and goals. With the two-line pass rule in place, much more play cycled through the neutral zone, but the absence of the rule allows teams to play at a much faster pace. Offsides is still called if the player enters the zone before the puck.
While players can shoot from inside the neutral zone, this play does not happen often. Shooting from that far from the goal is not a great strategy and is usually only done at the end of periods and by strong and skilled shooters. More commonly, players will dump the puck behind their opponent's net trying to set up a quality offensive possession or to kill time.
The neutral zone is important because it dictates the pace of the game. Teams must figure out how to skate into the opposing team's zone if they want to increase their shot totals and, consequently, goal totals. This strategy involves figuring out how the other team is defending the blue line and taking advantage of the weaknesses. The offensive zone entry greatly affects the number of shots and offensive opportunities a team will have throughout the game.
The neutral zone is 50 feet long. On the other hand, each offensive zone is 75 feet long, meaning that the neutral zone only occupies a quarter of the ice. The size of the neutral zone used to be different between the NHL and the IIHF, the rules the Olympics follow. The IIHF neutral zone used to be 62 feet long, but that rule was changed.
A neutral zone trap is one of the most interesting and rarely used strategies in professional hockey. Made famous by the New Jersey Devils under head coach Jacques Lemaire, this formation prioritizes stopping the offense's attack before it can even start. By using the two defensemen and two forwards to create a trapezoid shape in the neutral zone to delay offensive zone entries, the defense hopes to force the offensive into bad passes and plays. This formation requires all players to be able to do everything on the ice, promoting an almost positionless style of hockey.