BROSSARD, Que. – Blocking shots can hurt, but it doesn’t stop Josh Gorges from standing in the way while NHL opponents blast pucks at the Montreal Canadiens’ net.
Gorges has blocked a league-high 215 shots this season, 39 more than second-place Francois Beauchemin of the Anaheim Ducks and 44 more than third-place Brett Clark of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
”Sometimes it’s awful,” he said Monday of his often painful existence. ”And sometimes it’s a nothing shot, just a little wrister that hits you right in that spot that kills.
”But nine times out of 10 it gets you on the shin pad or the pants and you don’t really feel it.”
It has been a dismal season for the Canadiens, who will all but certainly miss the playoffs for the first time in five years. One positive development was Gorges’ successful return after missing 46 games last season for reconstructive surgery on his right knee.
With veteran Roman Hamrlik gone as a free agent to Washington and Hal Gill traded in mid-season to Nashville, Gorges has become a veteran leader on a young defence group.
The 27-year-old has always been a willing shot-blocker, but has never been called upon more than this season.
Part of that is because the Canadiens have had to kill 276 penalties, second-most in the league behind Philadelphia’s 283. With ace penalty killers like Gorges and centre Tomas Plekanec at work, they lead the league with a 89.5 per cent kill rate.
”It usually stems from the penalty kill,” Gorges said. ”That’s when you get most of your opportunities to block shots.
”This year, being out there more than ever, I’ve had the opportunity to get in the way of shooting lanes and knock down some of those pucks and that’s why the numbers are a little higher.”
His work is certainly appreciated by goaltender Carey Price.
”Especially on the penalty kill when guys are walking off the half wall,” Price said. ”Anything on his side of the ice doesn’t get through very often. That makes a big difference.”
Gorges has always been the team-first sort. He was captain of his junior team, the Kelowna Rockets, when it won a Memorial Cup in 2004. He won a silver medal that season with Canada at the world junior championships as well.
He said shot blocking is part nature, part nurture. He learned from one of the best in Gill, who uses his six-foot-seven body to stretch far in all directions. The six-foot-one Gorges doesn’t have that advantage, but gets the job done just the same.
”It’s mostly just a willingness to stand in the lane and not be afraid to get hit,” said Gorges. ”But also, over the years, you learn timing, to read when the guy’s going to take the shot and when he’s going to pass, and to wait until the last second to get into the lane so he thinks he can get the shot through and then you jump in front of it.
”There are little things I’ve picked up over the years and obviously playing with a guy like Hal, you learn a lot of about positioning and how to get yourself into those lanes.”
It comes in particularly handy on the penalty kill.
”We rely on our forwards to do a certain job and if they’re doing their job, the (opponent) has only one option to throw the puck at the net,” he said. ”If you know that you can be in the lane.
”That’s something I learned from him. And it’s something we try to carry on here now.”
First-year rearguard Alexei Emelin is also turning into a strong shot-blocker and he, no doubt, is learning by watching Gorges at work.
The Canadiens were wary of Gorges ability to come back from his knee injury and he got a one-year, $2.5 million contract from an arbitrator last summer. But he showed enough in the first half for the club to give him a six-year deal on Jan. 1 that pays US$3.9 million per season.
Gorges was part of one of the most successful trades the Canadiens have made in recent years. In February 2007, just before the last time they missed the post-season, Montreal dealt Craig Rivet and a fifth-round draft pick to San Jose for Gorges and a first rounder who turned out to be Max Pacioretty, now the team’s goal-scoring leader with 30.
Two seasons ago, Gorges led the Canadiens with 158 blocks, but Hamrlik (157) and Gill (150) were right behind. Hamrlik led the team with 192 in 2010-11.
Now Gorges has taken the art to another level. And he has a chance to give the Canadiens one thing to crow about in a season gone awry.
”Any time you can lead the league in something it’s nice, as long as it’s a positive stat,” he said. ”Whether I am or not doesn’t really make a difference to me.
”The most important thing is not how many you have but making the timely ones, where a guy has a wide open net and the goalie can’t get across and you get that block, or a guy’s walking right down the pipe and you don’t know if he’ll score or not and you get that block.
”It’s the key ones. Not how many you get.”
Montreal plays at Buffalo on Wednesday before a rare Friday night home game against Ottawa.