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Bolts Having Block Party

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning
Forward Dana Tyrell (#42) and defenseman Randy Jones (#8) stand in front of a Dylan Reese slapshot. Jones ranks 2nd on the Lightning with 31 blocked shots through the first 19 games.

It can be an important element in winning hockey games. It’s just difficult to work on in practice.

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You never know if you don't block that shot where it goes. Does it bounce off somebody, is our goalie able to see it, does it go in? For everything, there is a price to pay. Blocking shots is one of the prices to win games." - Martin St. Louis

Timing, technique and knowledge are needed to be successful blocking shots. But ultimately, it comes down to courage and desire to win.

The Lightning have been showing the willingness to make the extra effort and accept a little more pain to get in front of that 3x1 inch biscuit of frozen rubber, sometimes speeding as fast as 90-100 mph.

Tampa Bay is currently fourth in the league in blocks per game (15.5) and had a season-high 24 in the 8-7 victory over the Flyers Thursday night. The Bolts have averaged 19 blocks in 10 victories (22.3 in the last three), just 11.6 in their losses.

“You never know if you don’t block that shot where it goes,” Lightning forward Marty St. Louis said. “Does it bounce off somebody, is our goalie able to see it, does it go in? For everything, there is a price to pay. Blocking shots is one of the prices to win games.”

St. Louis already has more than half the amount of blocks (24) he had all of last season, when the Lightning was 14th in the league overall at 13.2 per game.

This season, it’s been contagious. On eight occasions, the Lightning had 19 or more blocks in a single game. Defenseman Randy Jones, second behind fellow blue-liner Brett Clark, said there was no major emphasis in the preseason. It has come naturally.

“When you see your defense partner doing it, sacrificing his body, you want to do the same and do anything you can to win games,” Jones said. “You take one for the team. It’s well worth it when it pays off a win.”

It is on the penalty kill when the shot blockers may do their most important work. Not only is it big to limit the shots, it is key to make intelligent decisions.

Jones said you have to know who has the puck and what their tendencies are. Some guys like to fake and pass, some just let it rip most of the time. If you go to the ice too early, some guys will let you take yourself out of the play and create a 5-on-3 against or worse.

“Every team’s got a great power play with skilled guys,” said defenseman Pavel Kubina, who was a blocking machine in the Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup run. “You have to read what they are going to do. It hurts sometimes, but you have to go.”

Kubina said he doesn’t feel comfortable with the shot blockers some players wear over and on the side of their skates to help prevent injuries, but Clark says somewhere around 40 percent of defensemen around the league are using them now. Clark has worn them for five years since taking a few heavy shots off the top of the feet.

There are different styles, but Clark’s shot blockers cover the top of his feet and have saved him a few bruises over the years. It also gives him more confidence to get in the shooting lanes.

“You can still get hurt if you take a shot in the right spot, but it gives you that added security,” said Clark, who is tied for eighth in the league with 44 blocks. “There are areas on your body where, if you get hit there, it’s going to sting the next day. But it’s just a matter of fighting through it.”

It isn’t just the defensemen who have gotten involved in the block party. Forwards St. Louis, Nate Thompson and Steven Stamkos are already in double figures for the season (Adam Hall has nine) and 23 players have at least one.

Clark calls it the “trickle-down effect.”

“It’s a great stat to have,” Clark said. “With the team we’ve got here, it’s not just one or two guys. It’s a full team effort, from the top guys down. You keep 20 shots away from our goalies and good things will happen going the other way. You sacrifice and earn your time out there.”

Goalies appreciate the bruises taken for them as well. Dan Ellis made 28 saves for the shutout against Toronto Nov 9, his teammates blocked 22, and he saw the puck well all night.

“Our defense has done a great job throughout the course of the season, blocking shots and allowing the goalies to see the shooting lane,” Ellis said. “We’ve been really good at getting sticks on pucks. The pucks that do get through, they’re from the perimeter.”

Players are faster, bigger and shoot harder than ever. Who wants to get in front of a Stamkos slap shot? One from Alexander Ovechkin, Shea Weber or Zdeno Chara?

St. Louis admits he has more bruises than normal this season. Others have been hobbled already, getting hit by shots in the wrong place. But when they look at the standings, the bumps become badges of honor.

“I think it’s important for any team in today’s day and age,” Lightning Head Coach Guy Boucher said. “If you look at the playoffs, it’s a common theme. If you don’t block shots, you’re cooked.

“The guys are so good now, they’ll shoot from everywhere and they protect the puck so well that eventually you give up shots because guys find a way to shoot. We’re trying to prevent shots, but the second way to prevent them is to block shots. I think it just shows the level of commitment of your team to winning.”

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