Friday, May 18, 2012

Rangers, Kings, Devils, Caps Amazing Commitment to Blocking Shots

The commitment to sacrificing your body for the good of the team. Would you do it? The Kings willingness to block shots and discipline to constantly have stick on puck defense has put them within a game of the Stanley Cup Finals. But, it is not as easy as just saying "Yeah, I'll block shots". It takes commitment. The Kings, Devils, Rangers, and Capitals have made it routine to drop down to the ice and take a shot for the team. Their commitment to blocking shots has been amazing.

When a player does not sacrifice by diving in front of a puck it becomes news. Supposedly Coach John Tortorella benched Marian Gaborik, star Rangers forward, in the third period of Game 2 when he did not go down to one knee to block a shot. That shot would be redirected in to the net and give the Devils a lead they would never relinquish. It was an interesting decision to sit Gaborik for all but three minutes of the third period as the Rangers needed a goal to tie the game. The Rangers did not and the series is tied 1-1. 

Did Gaborik do enough to block the shot? Not sure. Keith Jones of NBC Sports said he thought he did and it was a mistake to sit Gaborik. Mike Milbury felt that it was also a mistake to sit him. His point was that you have to allow players to make mistakes at times and still put them back in the game. 

Regardless of how one blocks a shot, there is a realization that it is going to hurt! To do this once is showing some courage, but to do this over and over again for eight weeks is a level of commitment bordering on obsession and maybe clinically insane. All the credit in the world to these guys who give up their bodies to block a hard rubber puck; it not only hurts immediately it can hurt for days. Take a shot in the wrong spot and you can be done for the playoffs with a broken toe. And, just the bruises pile up over time and can really take their toll on the energy and readiness of an athlete.

As I think what it would take for me to dive in front of a puck (and I have but not for five weeks worth of playoff games), a player that is committed to blocking shots must have some internal decisions to make:

A.     It is worth blocking this shot and exposing myself to injury to stop a scoring chance.
B.     I am willing to do this for my team and our collective success.
C.     To win the Cup I will do whatever it takes and live with the pain.

When thinking about blocking shots the commitment level of the Flyers Ian Laperriere comes to mind. In the first round of the 2010 Playoffs, Laperriere went to the ice to block a Devils’ shot. The puck hit him in the face. It resulted in a concussion and Laperriere has not played since. The blocked shot has given Laperriere a place in Flyers’ lore, but it also ended his career. Based on what I have read and heard about Laperriere I imagine he would still give up his body to block a shot if given the chance again. 

Hockey experts like Coach Tortorella and his Rangers staff seem to have blocking shots down to a science. I have been listening closely to the discussions about how to block shots and it seems a player should expose areas of the body covered with equipment (basically fronting the shooter), making himself “big” to block a larger space, and getting out close to the shooter to reduce the opportunity for the puck to elevate in to the throat and head and also stymie the puck some distance from the goalie so there is less of a chance for a redirection on goal. All of these things take courage and clear commitment to your team and winning.
Another aspect of blocking shots that is underrated is stick positioning. The Rangers have done an amazing job of using their sticks to deflect pucks away from the net. While this might seem simplistic, keeping your stick on puck requires discipline and focus. Over a playoff season when players are fatigued, injured, and under stress stick positioning can be the difference between winning and losing. 

Making a commitment to blocking shots requires a team-first focus, courage, and the discipline to do the little things well consistently. However, what I find the most impressive part of this is how a coaching staff is able to motivate players collectively to block shots every single game. It is not just one line or defensive pair that is sacrificing for the teams left in the playoffs. I am sure it is a constant point of emphasis within the locker room. At the same time leaders on these teams, like Ryan Callahan, Ryan McDonagh, and Dan Girardi for New York and Zach Parise, Patrick Elias, and Bryce Salvador for New Jersey, are more than willing to lead by example. 

Blocking shots is not about instant glory and is not likely to lead to a six million dollar contract (although Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi have done pretty well and are notorious shot blockers). What it does show is a player’s commitment to team, courage, and discipline. Every Stanley Cup winner has a roster loaded with guys willing to sacrifice for the team. The question that looms large is which team will be able to stifle their opponent’s offense by constantly deflecting and blocking shots? The team that can maintain their commitment to blocking shots will have an edge. At the same time, if you are blocking too many shots you probably are spending too much time in your own zone. Keep an eye on the final four’s shot blocking prowess the next few weeks. It will be a factor in which team has the privilege to drink from the Cup.

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