If shot blocking in the NHL is an art, it’s definitely modern art. It’s rarely pretty.
Blocking a shot is perhaps the most selfless act a player can perform. It’s not a sexy play and it doesn’t lead directly to goals. Usually, the only time it ends up on a highlight reel is when the shot blocker suffers a serious injury. That can happen quite a bit.
It is, however, perhaps the most-appreciated act, at least by goalies and coaches. A player, particularly a defenseman, who is willing to put his body between a piece of frozen rubber, being shot at upward of 100 miles per hour, is a valued teammate.
Almost universally, the best shot-blockers shrug off any talk of their on-ice bravery. They’re hockey’s version of infantrymen, focused only on the team’s immediate need.
``It's just survival, I think,’’ said Kings defenseman Matt Greene
. ``You do what you can. If you're not scoring points and you're not doing things that get noticed at the other end of the rink, you've got to make up for it on the defensive side of things.
``Also, it's just about winning games. It's a huge part. It's discouraging for the other team, if they can't get pucks to the net. It's a huge part of the game.’’
It’s tough to pigeonhole shot-blockers. The majority probably fall into Greene’s category, that of the big-bodied, stay-at-home types who play a physical all-around game.
Consider, though, that the Kings’ top shot blocker this season, Jack Johnson, is also one of their most-mobile, best-puck-moving defensemen. Johnson has taken huge strides in the shot-blocking department. With 54 this season, he’s averaging more than two per game. Last season, Johnson totaled 86 blocked shots in 80 games.
Intelligence is a big part of shot blocking. A blocker needs to know when to go for a block and when to let a goalie see a shot. He needs to pick his spot, and be certain that he won’t miss a block attempt an end up creating a scoring chance for opponents.
Sometimes, though, it’s all about grit and sacrifice. Greene had the most famous blocked shot in recent Kings history, late in the third period of a March 9, 2009 game against Vancouver. The game, in all reality, meant little to the Kings, who were treading water with a .500 record and had been all but eliminated from playoff contention.
With the Kings nursing a 3-2 lead in the final minute, the Canucks buzzed around goalie Jonathan Quick
. Greene went down to the ice and, after a scramble, the final horn sounded. Up came Greene, his face a bloody mess. Just before time expired, Greene had blocked a wrist shot by Alexandre Burrows, unintentionally, with his forehead.
``There wasn't a lot of time left in the game, and it was kind of a turnover, with a bouncing puck,’’ Greene said. ``It got into the slot, and I figured I would just lay down and try to take away the bottom of the net and make the guy shoot over me in order to get a shot on Quicker. It was the dying seconds, so I didn't think too much about it.
``(Burrows) actually ended up fanning on the shot. When I went down, he was shooting. I was down, looking back at Quicker to see if he was moving, or where the puck went. When I didn't see him moving, I took a peek over my other shoulder, to see where it was going, and it turns out that's when he was shooting it right into my face.’’
After the Kings secured the victory, Greene didn’t bolt for the locker room. He stayed on the ice, celebrating with teammates. An iconic picture, captured by a Getty Images photographer, shows a stone-faced Greene, blood streaming down his nose and cheek, standing in front of a wide-eyed Quick, who is staring up at Greene’s half-red face.
The picture still has a place of honor in the Kings’ training facility, hanging in the training room. More than 20 months later, players still remember the particulars of the play.
``As far as shot-blocking, I think Greener is probably one of the best, maybe in the league,’’ Quick said. ``He gets in front of pucks and creates a lighter workload for the goaltenders. He doesn't hold back. That play there, we were up 3-2 late in the game, and he lays out and takes one in the face. There's maybe five seconds left in the game when it happens. Save of the game.’’
The post-lock out NHL has been tough on goalies. The crackdown on holding and obstruction has given offensive players more space on the ice, including the area directly in front of the net, and that has created more traffic in front of goalies.
There are ever-present opportunities for tips, deflections and rebounds in front of mostly-helpless goalies. If a defenseman can block a shot, and prevent the puck from ever getting into that high-traffic area, it’s usually all the better for the goalie.
``I think it does a couple of things for me,’’ Quick said. ``Obviously it makes my workload lighter and it takes away opportunities for (opponents), off rebounds. Then, when these guys are willing to jump in front of pucks, wearing half the gear -- not that there's any lack of motivation for me to get in front of the puck -- it makes you dig in a little deeper. These guys are taking them off the foot, the ankle, the thigh, and they do a great job.’’
Sometimes, though, the best thing a defenseman can do is get out of the way.
Those previously-mentioned deflections and tips don’t always come from opponents. If a shot-block attempt isn’t dead-on, the puck can often deflect to an area the goalie isn’t prepared to cover, and can lead to an unintentionally high-percentage scoring chance.
So a defenseman must make a split-second decision as to when to go for a block. Quick said he and defensemen communicate as to when a block attempt is a good idea.
``I think we have a pretty good system,’’ Quick said. ``A lot of the non-threatening stuff, from the perimeter, they'll end up clearing the lane and letting me see the puck.
``If there are guys coming right down the slot, getting quality chances, they're going to try to take away a portion of the net, so I know that they're not going to be shooting at a certain portion. It makes the net a little smaller for me to defend. It's a good system and I think it works out pretty well.’’
It also explains why shot blocking is not just about physical acumen.
Players not only have to put themselves in the proper mindset -- and ignore the body’s natural tendency to move out of the way at the sight of a speeding puck -- but they have to make sure they’re making the right move for the benefit of their teammates.
That decision, of course, must be made within a split-second.
``I think it's mental, but I also think it's a skill, more than anything else,’’ Greene said. ``You look at the top guys, around the league, who are the top shot-blockers every year, and it's not necessarily the really crazy guys. A lot of it is pretty calculated, with playing angles. A lot of guys are like goalies now. They know their angles, they know where they are at all times, so that guys have to shoot through them to get to the net.
``Granted, you're going to have situations a few times a year, where you put yourself in a vulnerable situation to get a block, but hopefully, more often than not, you're squared up, you know where you are on the ice and you know where the net is, so you can get a piece of your equipment, rather than a piece of your flesh, in front of the puck.’’
In the case of Green’s famous blocked shot, against Vancouver, he got off lucky. Greene required only a handful of stitches and got a knot on his head that required him to wear a larger-size helmet in practice for the following few days.
Others aren’t as lucky. Shot blockers can frequently suffer broken feet, or worse. During last season’s playoffs, Philadelphia’s Ian Laperriere suffered a concussion while blocking a shot, which contributed to the likely end of his career.
Hockey players being hockey players, though, they rarely show that they have been hurt on the ice, and are even reluctant to talk about the pain they might be hiding.
``It's not that bad,’’ Greene said. ``When somebody takes a real heavy one, I think everybody knows. A lot of times, I think it's the ones that don't necessarily look that bad that kind of sting the most. If you don't hear a loud thud, or a loud crack, you know that you got somebody right in the knee. It's probably better for everyone if that person just gets off the ice in a hurry.’’