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That's Gotta Hurt
February 19, 2007
With the crackdown on obstruction in the NHL, sacrificing the body to block a shot has become a defenseman's most effective--and risky--ploy
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February 19, 2007

That's Gotta Hurt

With the crackdown on obstruction in the NHL, sacrificing the body to block a shot has become a defenseman's most effective--and risky--ploy

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In an event as indecorous as it was inspirational, the Boston Bruins, on the morning of Nov. 7, inducted their forwards into the Hall of Foam. The ritual was, in its way, moving: The forwards had to move themselves into shooting lanes and block point shots from the defensemen, who were rifling foam-rubber pucks, not the usual vulcanized ones, to keep collateral damage to a minimum. Rookie Phil Kessel, whose swift rise to the NHL has been predicated on putting pucks in the net and not putting himself in harm's way, slid around the zone like a tobogganing 10-year-old after a snowfall. "The players had a blast," says coach Dave Lewis. "Guys who probably would have broken ribs or gotten concussions learned positioning, when to go down, how to go down, left side, right side."

Once reserved for the penalty kill, the playoffs or critical moments of meaningful regular-season games, shot blocking has shifted from last resort to first option. It is now a communal responsibility, a nightly chore from which no one is excused. "It's a fact of life," Tampa Bay Lightning center Brad Richards says. "On our team, if you don't block shots, you don't play." To the detriment of hockey--and the players who have been injured by truly taking one for the team--the shot block, not the two-line stretch pass, has become the most common, and effective, tool in the postlockout NHL.

With the more stringent enforcement of the obstruction rules, the little tug with the stick, the sly hold and the physical confrontations in front of the net have been rendered moot. Or illegal. While an element of the new shot blocking zeal is better protective equipment--"I do think that's made some guys more courageous," Nashville Predators general manager David Poile says--most blocks can be attributed to the defenders' lack of options. "You [keep] forwards from going to the net, and you're called for interference," says Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. "And once the forwards get there, they're basically screening your goalie. So now all that's left for you is throwing yourself in front of shots." With the postlockout NHL playing surface reconfigured to add four additional feet to the attacking zones, many teams now defend by collapsing toward the net and then fanning back out in the shooting lanes. Because defenders clog the lanes more actively, Lewis instituted another drill in which players shooting from the point intentionally miss the net and his forwards troll for pucks that carom off the end boards.

The shot block is its own reward. This overt act of selflessness, putting yourself in the way of a slap shot that might be traveling more than 90 mph, isn't formally celebrated by the league as much as, say, face-offs, but blocks will show up in each team's video session, a visual pat on the back from the last game that also reinforces expectations for the next. "You don't see guys signing huge contracts because they block shots well," Edmonton Oilers left wing Ethan Moreau says. "But we saw how valuable it was for us in the playoffs last year [when the Oilers reached Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals]. It was one of the keys to our success. If you block 20 shots a game, that's maybe two or three good scoring chances [you prevent]. But it comes at a price. [Teams] have had significant injuries from guys blocking shots."

Maybe shot blockers don't rank with race car drivers on the actuarial tables, but the act can be as reckless as bump-drafting into a turn at Daytona. In January 2000 Montreal Canadiens forward Trent McCleary, huge on moxie, small on technique, laid out and took a career-ending shot off the throat by Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris Therien; McCleary survived only because doctors performed an emergency tracheotomy. While playing for the St. Louis Blues in the 1998 playoffs, Anaheim Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger suffered what doctors said was a heart attack when a puck shot by the Detroit Red Wings' Dmitri Mironov struck him in the chest and caused his heart to skip a beat. Those were dramatic occupational hazards. The standard shot blocking injury is the broken foot: Two months ago Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason broke his right foot blocking a slapper by the Florida Panthers' Olli Jokinen and limped around the defensive zone for the next minute because the Hurricanes were unable to clear the puck on the penalty kill. Gleason's act of courage wasn't as extreme as the sad case of Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Nick Boynton, who sustained a fractured left foot on Nov. 9 and played five more games before having it X-rayed. (He wound up missing the next 20.)

But the shot block that has left the largest impression this season was on the left skate of Pronger. On Dec. 31, while leading NHL defensemen in scoring with 40 points in 41 games, Pronger broke his left foot blocking a Mark Parrish shot. Without the stalwart Pronger (and injured No. 1 goalie Jean-S�bastien Gigu�re), the Ducks began to unravel and went 2-5-1. The irony is that since his trade to Anaheim last summer, Pronger had grown more circumspect about shot blocking than he had been during his one season in Edmonton, a team that freely sacrificed the body, in part because of the scant faith it had in its goalies until Dwayne Roloson arrived at the trade deadline. In Anaheim, however, the seasoned Gigu�re created a different dynamic. While he appreciates blocked shots, he doesn't want teammates to extend themselves--especially if the misadventures of an inexperienced shot blocker create more screens or deflections than they do blocks. After defenseman Joe DiPenta blocked a shot with his head early in the season, Gigu�re told him, "I'd rather have a goal against than have you dead."

The confluence of lighter skates, whippier composite sticks and the new shot blocking ethos has sent some players and NHL equipment managers scurrying for cover--a foot cover. Pronger now wears them. And Coyotes equipment manager Stan Wilson, who received a carbon-fiber-and- Kevlar mold from a sled-hockey player, is now developing a version for his team. Phoenix forward Dave Scatchard, an excellent shot blocker, attaches one with Velcro over the tongue of each skate like spats. Such measures, though, are rare. "A lot of players would rather take their chances than go for added protection," says Coyotes G.M. Mike Barnett. "They don't want anything they think will compromise their quickness." A few weeks on crutches, of course, can really slow a player.

There is a certain degree of serendipity in staying healthy-- Colorado Avalanche defenseman Karlis Skrastins, who last week broke the record for consecutive games by a defenseman, ranks third in the league in blocked shots (151)--but proper technique is a more reliable safeguard. Although historically many shot blocking specialists earned their reputations by laying out (former Montreal center and current coach Guy Carbonneau basically spent the late 1980s and early '90s horizontal), the trend is for players to stay on their feet or, if necessary, to go down on one knee, which permits a more rapid recovery. "You get a guy who's gifted like [ Detroit's Nicklas] Lidstrom or [ Dallas's Sergei] Zubov, and as soon as you lay out, they'll go around you," Oilers defenseman Jason Smith says. "There's a chance they'll shoot it in your face, too."

"There are a lot of defensemen who think they want to block shots, but they really don't," Canadiens defenseman Craig Rivet says. "They just pretend to be in front of shots..... Guys at this level should know where to be, what angle to take. They don't [take it] because the reality is, when the puck hits you, it's going to hurt." This is no block party, just a dirty job that has become part of the NHL landscape even if it is a four-letter word. Ouch.