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
Posted: Tuesday February 13, 2007 9:28AM; Updated: Tuesday February 13, 2007 9:28AM
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.
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