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Shot-blockers are strategically in the 'zone'

Monday, 04.20.2009 / 12:18 PM / 2009 Playoffs Conference Quarterfinals

By John McGourty - NHL.com Staff Writer

Imagine if New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist had to make 64 saves Saturday against the Washington Capitals. It's unlikely he would have come away with that 1-0 shutout and a surprising two-games-to-zero New York lead in the quarterfinal series.

Instead, Lundqvist faced 35 shots because his teammates blocked 29 shots. They blocked 21 shots in Game 1, a 4-3 victory on the road, so Lundqvist had made 32 saves rather than, oh, 50-plus. You can expect more of the same as the Rangers host Washington Monday night for Game 3 (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN).

"We're really good right now in playing in the middle of the ice," Lundqvist said. "We have a lot of people in the lanes and because of that we're able to block a lot of shots."

The Rangers are not the only team blocking shots in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Flyers and Penguins have combined to block 104 shots in three games of their series. It's that time of year when bruises, welts, you name it, are part of advancing to the next round.

"It's huge to have a lot of guys to block shots and sacrifice their bodies in a series like this, especially when you face so many good players that can shoot the puck," Lundqvist told NHL.com's Dan Rosen. "We had a lot of blocks in the first game, especially after faceoffs, and (Saturday) again they came up big on a couple that they had a pretty good shot opportunities."

Rangers left winger Markus Naslund said, "I think a lot of guys are sacrificing their bodies, blocking shots, but also playing smart."

Naslund said shot-blocking starts with being in the right position -- and out of Lundqvist's sightlines.

“Our 'D' is doing a good job of keeping their key guys in front of them and letting Hank see the pucks," he said.

In response to the rules and standard of enforcement changes four years ago, players can no longer hold, hook and interfere with rivals as much as before. As a result, NHL coaches, hockey's top strategists, have responded with systems that resemble zones in basketball, all designed to keep shots coming from the perimeter or a considerable distance from the net.

To continue the basketball terminology, a lot of shots are coming from three-point range.

"The way the new rules were set up, there's a lot less interference and it took away from the power of the defenseman," Penguins defender Rob Scuderi said.

"The general consensus is if you get the puck to the net, things are going to happen there, whether it be a rebound off the goalie or whether it hits a defenseman and drops.

"We're not allowed to use our sticks and bodies the way we used to. Teams figure if they get the puck to the net, good things will happen. So, we're blocking more shots to keep pucks away from our net."

"It's one thing if it's a shot from the point. I think I can control that," Lundqvist said. "But it's been a lot of blocks where they had the puck right in the slot. When a good shooter like Ovechkin or Semin gets time and space in the slot, I'd rather see us try to prevent the shot. It's been working really well the first two games."

A lot of the perimeter shots are from a greater distance and give players time to get in front of them.

"A 35-foot shot is a lot easier for the goalie to save than a quick shot from the slot," Scuderi said. "Anything we can do to force them to the outside, we'll do, And, if there's a shot you can block, you have to sacrifice yourself."

"There are a lot of dangers. You're obviously going to get a lot of bumps and bruises," said Derian Hatcher, one of the NHL's all-time best shot blockers. "The danger is always breaking a bone and you have to keep your head out of the way, obviously. The big danger is breaking a bone."

Detroit future Hall of Famer Chris Chelios knows all about that. He broke a leg bone, his right tibia below the knee, blocking a shot Sept. 30 in the preseason. The 48-year-old defenseman played only 28 games during the regular season.

Hatcher was asked if wearing a visor makes a player more willing to step in front of shots traveling upwards of 90 miles per hour. Before helmets became mandatory and visors became popular, players tried to avoid being hit above the waist when blocking shots.

"You can still get hit in the face, even with a visor, but I think they do make guys braver," Hatcher said. "You can definitely see guys blocking shots differently today. You see their heads in harm's way a lot more than you used to."

"I didn't block too many shots, but I can tell you it certainly hurts," said former Ottawa Senators coach John Paddock, now the coach of the AHL Philadelphia Flyers. "The way the players shoot today, if you take one off your foot, you've got a problem. The skates are lighter and thinner. They should be [more protective] but that's not necessarily the case.

Penguins senior advisor Eddie Johnston, the team's former general manager and the last NHL goalie to play every minute of the season in 1964-65, said the rule change that created more room in the offensive zone magnifies the importance of shot blocking during penalty kills.

"We're seeing more blocked shots now than before, especially with the penalty killing," Johnston said. "They moved the point further out from the goal with the rule changes and that's allowing for more shots, resulting in more forwards coming out to block them. In Pittsburgh, we've blocked more shots in the last couple of years than we did in the previous 15 years.

"It's a fine art and more and more teams are blocking more and more shots. Look at all the shots blocked here today in Game 3 (36). Nowadays, you have the top players, like our Sidney Crosby, blocking shots. It always scares the hell out of me when he does that but he gets involved in the game and it's a big part of the game, especially penalty killing."

Hatcher said that while coaches design systems and players learn them by rote practice, the pace of games is fast – sometimes emotion and instinct overcome training.

"I think it's because of the desperation to win," Hatcher said. "If you can dive in front of a puck, block the shot and prevent a good scoring chance, then it's a good play."

Rangers coach John Tortorella agrees with Hatcher.
"I've never been blamed by a goalie for blocking a shot that didn't go in the net." -- Derian Hatcher
"It's a matter of instinctive plays," he said. "There are certain situations where we want to give Hank [Lundqvist] the shot at certain times. When you get into this  situation come playoff time I don't think players sitting out there saying, 'You know what, is this one I'm supposed to give to Hank or do I try to block this?' It's a matter of desperation and both teams are showing it."

Goalies mostly appreciate shot-blockers, as you might expect, yet there are at least two situations in which goalies don't want teammates blocking shots.

"If I have a guy coming in on an angle, I don't want my guy to go down," Johnston said. "If he goes down and it comes up off of him, I'm dead in the water. If the guy is clear, let me take him."

"I've never been blamed by a goalie for blocking a shot that didn't go in the net," Hatcher said. "It's when you try to block it and miss and it goes in, then they blame you for screening them."

Occasionally, a defenseman will move in front of a shot, expecting it to hit him in the shin pads. But then he sees it's a low shot and lifts his foot to avoid a broken bone. The puck slips through his screen and beats the goalie. Goalies call players who do this "flamingos."

"That's the worst," Johnston said. "But more guys get hurt because of the flamingo. He lifts his leg and a shot that would have hit his shin pads, hits him on the outside of his ankle."

Johnston was told former NHL goalie Pete Peeters once came out of his net in pursuit of his own defenseman who did that.

"I came out of my net after a few flamingos, too," said Johnston.
Quote of the Day

There's no discouragement in that room. There's no issues there at all to be honest with you. It's more about, 'Hey, it's opportunities for players.' And if we become that bad of a team because of one player, it's not a real good sign for our hockey club. So this is part of sports. It's part of hockey.

— Bruins coach Claude Julien on the loss of Zdeno Chara to injury
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