WASHINGTON – Goals. Assists. Saves. Those are the biggies. When fans dissect a hockey game, those are the numbers they look at first.
Blocked shots? Not exactly the sexiest statistic. At least that was the point made to Karl Alzner on Thursday morning in the Washington Capitals locker room.
Alzner’s eyes immediately lit up.
“To me, it is,” he replied. “It might sound weird, but I pride myself on doing that—and not being afraid to just dive in front of one.”
For the Capitals’ sake, it’s good that Alzner has that attitude. The young defenceman got in the way eight times when the New York Rangers were trying to propel the puck toward the net in the Capitals’ 2-1 overtime win in Game 1 of their first-round Eastern Conference series Wednesday night, part of a landmark performance that shows just how much Washington’s style has changed in just a few months.
The Capitals blocked 32 shots, the most they’ve had in 29 playoff games under coach Bruce Boudreau. Take away the overtime, and they still had 25. Compare that to the last six games of last year’s post-season, when they had 11, 16, 14, 15, 11 and 12 against the Montreal Canadiens.
“They did a great job of blocking shots,” New York defenceman Bryan McCabe said. “We’ve got to find a way to get it through, get to the net and get some ugly goals.”
Essentially, the Capitals beat the Rangers at their own game. Blocked shots are a New York specialty—and the visitors did have a respectable 28 in Game 1—but it’s a different look from a Washington team that used to try to win by outscoring the opposition.
“Shot blocking has become a part of hockey, and if you don’t do it you’re not going to be successful,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “You look at all the best defensive teams in the league, and their defence and forwards are committed to blocking shots, and I don’t think we’re any different. I think it gets ramped up in the playoffs more, where every team sacrifices even more.”
It’s a sacrifice Alzner is happy to make, even if it leaves him with a bruise or two.
“Guys are willing to take a puck off anywhere to make sure that they block it,” said the 22-year-old defenceman, who was playing in his second NHL playoff game. “That’s what you have to do. It’s necessary. Yesterday was a game where I found pucks were just hitting me. There was maybe one time where I had to get in position to block it, and there were times guys were just shooting into my shin pads, and that’s what I like to see. It’s nice that they were all written down on the score sheet after so I could see them.”
With Alzner and Jeff Schultz (six blocks) stopping pucks early and often, goaltender Michal Neuvirth had to make only 24 saves in his NHL playoff debut—even though the game kept going and going until Alexander Semin’s goal 18:24 into overtime.
“We need to get more scoring chances,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “We’ve got to think ‘shot’ more. Our blue-line, especially, has to think ‘shot.’ And the quicker you get it off, maybe they’re going to be out of line.”
The margin was between victory and defeat was thin, but it’s psychological impact was huge for a Capitals team that was eliminated in the first round a year ago. Now, just as then, they are a No. 1 seed playing a No. 8 seed, so they are taking nothing for granted.
“You want to get a leg up in the series,” forward Jason Chimera said. “But it doesn’t mean anything now if you go and (throw) it away tomorrow. You’ve got to keep the foot on the gas pedal and keep going.”
The Rangers couldn’t be faulted for saying they came close, which would give them reason to expect better things ahead, but that wasn’t the prevalent thought pattern after practice on Thursday.
“We’d better compete—it’s the playoffs,” centre Brian Boyle said. “We expect that out of ourselves. We expect more, actually. There’s no moral victories. We lost Game 1. It was an opportunity for us to get an advantage in the series, and we didn’t get it. We’ve got to go on to Game 2, and we’ve got to raise our level. You can say whatever you want about it being a close game and overtime, it obviously wasn’t good enough, so we need to do something more.”