No Block Party
As the injury to Trent McCleary proved, blocking shots is dangerous
The science of shot blocking is not a science at all, but an imprecise art that requires good instinct and technique and flat-out fearlessness on the part of its practitioners. Canadiens forward Trent McCleary nearly died in a game against the Flyers on Jan. 29 after he went down to block a slap shot, was struck in the throat by the puck and suffered a fractured larynx. The incident scared other NHL players, though not enough to persuade them to stop blocking shots. "When I saw what happened to him, it freaked me out," says Leafs defenseman Dimitri Yushkevich, "but you're still going to block shots. You see car crashes every day, yet people still drive cars."
Yushkevich endured something worse than a fender bender when he dived in front of a shot during an exhibition game against the Canadiens in 1998. The puck slammed into Yushkevich's forehead and fractured his sinus cavity. Yushkevich and McCleary, who was in good condition in a Montreal hospital last weekend, both broke a commonsense rule of shot blocking: Lead with your feet. Ideally, a sliding shot blocker wants to get hit with the puck on a heavily padded leg. Still, players regularly risk their heads and necks when they block shots, either because they're scrambling to get into position, as McCleary was, or because the shot goes wild.
The preferred way to block a shot is to stay on one's skates and stand between the shooter and the net Former defenseman Craig Ludwig, one of the top shot blockers of the 1980s and '90s, wore extra-wide shin pads to make that method more effective. If required to leave their feet, many players will go down on only one knee so they can quickly spring back into the play. Falling into a horizontal position to block a shot, as McCleary did, is most commonly done in a desperate attempt to defuse a two-on-one.
Recent seasons have seen the emergence of fronting, in which a defenseman gets in front of a forward who has set up near the crease and tries to block the shot rather than move the forward out of the way. "That's how I get a lot of my blocks," says Rangers defenseman Mathieu Schneider, who led the NHL with 142 at week's end. "When I go down, it's a last resort. What you're hoping is to make the guy pass."
Of course the shooter often lets the puck fly, which is why the safest method remains that employed by Coyotes defenseman Teppo Numminen, a 12-year veteran, who says, "If it's a hard shot, I get out of the way. And fast."
Is He Playing Too Much?
The Devils were atop the NHL with 75 points through Sunday, thanks in large part to the play of perennial All-Star goalie Martin Brodeur, who had a league-best 31 victories and was among the leaders in most major goaltending statistics. Brodeur also was second in games played, with 47, but if past is prologue, he might help New Jersey more in the long run by spending a few more games on the bench.
Brodeur has appeared in 207 regular-season games over the past three full seasons (second, behind Maple Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph), and each of those seasons has ended with the Devils' getting upset in an early-round playoff series. Last year, after appearing in a league-high 70 games, Brodeur turned in the most lackluster postseason performance of his career, against the Penguins. "I don't know if he's playing too much," says New Jersey captain Scott Stevens. "We talk about it on the team, and some guys think he does."
Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello says that the possibility of mental and physical fatigue impairing Brodeur "is a consideration we've all discussed, including Martin" and that Brodeur's playing time may be scaled back in the second half. Brodeur says that he feels strong in body and mind, and he's not eager to cede more than a rare starting assignment to backup Chris Terreri. "I like to play a lot, and I don't think that will change this year," says Brodeur. "This isn't the first season I've played so much."