MONTREAL – Brent Sopel says it helps to be a little crazy for a player other than a goaltender to block shots in an NHL game.
And the lunacy becomes epidemic in the playoffs, when just about every skater is ready to stand in front of cannon-like blasts from the point to keep the opposing team from scoring.
“Yeah, it hurts,” Sopel, the Montreal Canadiens’ defenceman, said. “It’s sacrificing.
“At this time of year it’s all about sacrifice from everyone. You see different guys come up with big shot blocks and that’s what it’s all about. It’s a team game and you need everybody. If I block a shot, it’s not going in the net. It’s trying to do whatever it takes to win.”
In Game 1 of their first-round playoff series in Boston, forward Andrei Kostitsyn got a foot in front of a rocket from the hardest shooter in the NHL, Bruins’ six-foot-nine defenceman Zdeno Chara.
He limped off the ice, but returned after the intermission and went down to block more shots. He had to miss Game 2 with an injured foot that may have been fractured, although teams don’t elaborate on the particulars of injuries during the post-season.
Kostitsyn, who was expected back in the lineup for Game 3 on Monday night, was credited with only 26 shot-blocks during the regular season, which was 17th on the team. But he had three in that one playoff game, one fewer than Sopel and defenceman James Wisniewski.
After the first two games of the opening round, the Canadiens led all playoff teams with 46 blocked shots as they won twice on the road by scores of 2-0 and 3-1. Of the 66 shots that got through, Carey Price saved 65, but he wears full padding. The skaters aren’t exactly dressed for stopping pucks.
“Some hurt, some don’t,” said defenceman Hal Gill. “You try to get it on the pad but if you don’t, you feel the pain.
“Does it just hurt or is something broken? That’s the next question. But you try to block that out as much as you can.”
New York Rangers defenceman Dan Girardi led the league with 236 shot blocks this season, ahead of Greg Zanon of Minnesota with 212, Mark Giordano of Calgary with 193 and Montreal rearguard Roman Hamrlik with 192.
Girardi, who by Sopel’s measure must be completely degenerate, is at it again in the playoffs with 14, tied with Anaheim’s Francois Beauchemin after three games.
“You don’t want to just go out and block shots, you want to put some pressure on them, but there’s going to come a time when you’re going to have to get in front of a shot,” added Gill. “You have Kostitsyn blocking shots and it spreads through the team.
“It’s a level of sacrifice. It goes with winning battles on the boards or taking a hit to make a play. All those things, every little thing, matters in the playoffs. At this time of the year you want the puck to hit you in the face if it’s going to stop a goal. That’s the mindset you have to have.”
Part of the Canadiens’ success in the playoffs both this season and a year ago when they upset Washington and Pittsburgh in the first two rounds was their ability to collapse the defence around the goaltender and keep the shooters to the outside.
Opponents end up firing a lot of rubber at the Montreal net, only some of which gets through.
And if a shot blocker is quick on his feet, he can turn it into a transition play and start an attack in the other direction, a move the Canadiens use frequently.
“After you make a block it probably adds a little oomph to your team and you feel like getting up and making a play,” said forward Michael Cammalleri. “It’s important.
“We have some guys who are very good at it. It’s become a skill. Hal and Sopel lead the way, and Hamrlik, and then everyone else follows.”
Coach Jacques Martin said shot-blocking has blossomed since the 2004-05 NHL lockout because defenceman can no longer push opponents out of the net area without incurring obstruction penalties, so they try to keep pucks from getting through instead.
Even then, he said, a player “has to have the will to do it.”
Or be mental, as Sopel suggested.