Heroics aside, shot-blocking a last resort in NHL playoffs
Penguins defenceman Ian Cole believes it's an integral part of the game
Nothing says sacrifice for a hockey team like blocking a shot, no matter how dangerous.
Ian Laperriere took a puck to the face during the Flyers' run to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final and was heralded as a hero, even though post-concussion symptoms blamed on the blow ended his career the following fall. Gregory Campbell could barely skate on a broken leg after blocking a shot in 2013, but finishing his shift during the Bruins' run made him into a cult phenomenon in a sport that glorifies taking frozen rubber fired at more than 100 mph off whatever part of your body you choose — as long as you keep it out of the net.
Shot-blocking is still an essential part of playoff hockey, though the risk-reward value of the time-honoured tradition filled with bruises and broken bones is being questioned like never before.
"I think shot blocking's a last resort," said Ian Cole, the Pittsburgh Penguins' shot-blocker extraordinaire. "It's not something that you try to go out and search for."
Hockey's analytics awakening has put a premium on holding on to the puck and attempting more shots than your opponent. By that measure of success, blocking too many shots means you're on the defensive too much.
"If you're blocking an absolute ton of shots, you're probably not having a very good game," Washington Capitals defenceman Matt Niskanen said. "You don't have the puck much and you're not closing on people. You're slow. They're playing way faster than you. They have too much space."
The best teams still block shots, a necessary evil this time of year with scoring usually at a premium. Coaches insist it's still part of what it takes to win.
"When you're blocking shots, it's an element of playing team defence," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "We'd like to spend less time in our end zone, we'd like to make sure that we hang on to pucks in the offensive game, we establish a puck-pursuit game, we try to get out of our end zone clean with our breakouts."
The Penguins blocked 18 shots a game on the way to the championship last season and are averaging 19.3 so far in these playoffs. Ottawa Senators coach Guy Boucher said his team should block 22 to 25 every game and called the 11 blocks in Game 3 against the New York Rangers "not even close to our standards."
Some teams like Pittsburgh and Ottawa rely on shot-blocking, and the improvement in that area of Senators captain Erik Karlsson helped earn him another Norris Trophy nomination as the NHL's top defenceman. Karlsson also played during the first round with two microfractures in one of his feet from blocking a shot late in the regular season, somehow still playing better than everyone else on the ice in the process.
Karlsson, of course, is unique.
"With the way guys shoot the puck with these kinds of sticks now, you see a lot of those teams with a lot of injuries," Capitals defenceman Brooks Orpik said. "I'm sure there's some people that think it's great sacrifice, and I'm sure there's some people that think it's stupid and pointless."
There is an in-between. Teams like the Penguins have two or three layers of potential shot-blockers as part of their defensive-zone coverage, like the teams of Sullivan's friend and colleague John Tortorella, who made laying out on the ice something of an art.
Encountering grizzly bear
Even for teams that would rather defend than block shots, sometimes getting in the way of a slap shot is like encountering a grizzly bear.
"You have to try to make yourself as big as possible," Niskanen said. "Even if you don't want to block it, you're making them shoot somewhere where they don't want to."
More than likely a team blocking a ton of shots is enduring a ton of injuries. Capitals centre Jay Beagle broke his foot in the second round against the New York Rangers in 2012, an injury that contributed to a Game 5 loss and an absence that cost Washington the series.
But there's no perfect way to block a shot without loading up on equipment like plastic shot-blockers.
"You don't know where the guy's shooting," Beagle said. "You know around the vicinity of where he's going to shoot when he releases it, but usually I'm so close to a shooter that it's coming off his stick and 'Boom!' I'm hoping that it hits my body. There's little ways where you don't expose yourself to vulnerable areas, but sometimes you have to in order to get that block."
As Sullivan and Washington's Barry Trotz pointed out, there isn't a coach around who will tell a player to get out of the way. Nor is there a player with his sights set on the Cup who will get out of the way even if it's risky.
"It's still mandatory," Niskanen said. "Every team's going to get opportunities to shoot the puck, so it's still a requirement to block it."
That's why Cole, who's second in blocks in the playoffs behind Edmonton's Kris Russell, is such a valuable piece of the Penguins' defence: He's good at something he doesn't necessarily want to do every shift.
"It's something that there's a high desperation level come playoffs and everybody's doing it," said Cole, who has 31 blocks in nine games. "You don't want to try to force it, you don't want to try to dive in front of every shot, but it the opportunity arises, you want to try to get the shot blocked."