On Hockey: This spring, Capitals show they’ve got guts
By Tarik El-Bashir,
One of the first things Karl Alzner seeks out after each game is a photocopy of the game sheet. Unlike most hockey players, though, he isn’t all that interested in how much ice time he received or the number of hits he was credited with.
The Washington Capitals defenseman goes straight for the column labeled “BS,” as in blocked shots.
“It’s my favorite of all the stats,” Alzner said Monday. “I obviously don’t have the best numbers, points-wise. But that’s one little thing I can control. I decide how many pucks I want to throw my body in front of, whereas I can’t always decide that I want to stickhandle through everyone and score.”
Alzner and fellow blue-liner Jeff Schultz are tied for fourth in the playoffs with 15 blocked shots apiece through Sunday’s games, and the Capitals led all 16 playoff teams with 104, despite playing fewer games than all but three clubs.
Last season, Washington finished 12th of the 16 playoff teams after blocking 109 in a seven-game series with the Montreal Canadiens.
Although puck possession and other factors, such as long overtimes, can influence how many shot-blocking opportunities a team receives, it became clear over the course of a five-game series win over the New York Rangers that the Capitals are more committed to putting themselves in harm’s way than in previous springs.
The damage inflicted to Mike Green’s helmet embodied that sacrifice.
The star defenseman sprawled in front of a Matt Gilroy shot late in the first period of Saturday’s 3-1 victory and took the blow on the left side of his head. Green had already missed 26 games after suffering a pair of concussions during the regular season. He went down anyway, knowing the alternative could have been a scoring chance in a game the Capitals led 1-0.
Green’s technique left much to be desired. But when one of the team’s best players blocks a shot, it sends a strong message to everyone on the bench.
“When Mike blocks a shot with his head, you’re thinking, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Coach Bruce Boudreau said Monday. “But at the same time, do you want him to stop doing what he feels will help the team?”
There are three primary reasons for the increase in blocked shots:
Under the more defensive system that Boudreau implemented in December, players are positioned closer to their own net. Shots, as a result, are finding the shin pads and skates more often.
Another reason is personnel.
“[John] Carlson, Alzner, [Scott] Hannan, [John] Erskine, Schultz, they take pride in the shots they block,” Boudreau said. “Not taking anything away from the Brian Pothiers and the Shaone Morrisonns, [but the former Capitals defensemen] weren’t as active in that duty. These guys really are.”
And, finally, it comes to down to guts. Well, Boudreau actually used a different four-letter word, but we’ll leave that up to your imagination.
“I remember as a player, I was one who didn’t like to block shots,” Boudreau said. “You couldn’t [lift one leg to avoid a shot and] do ‘The Flamingo,’ because everybody would see that. You can go out to the point and almost block a shot. Get close to it, look like you’re blocking a shot.”
After Alzner and Schultz, Carlson checks in with 14 blocked shots and is followed by Hannan, who has 10. (Only Green and Schultz were in double figures last April.) Among the forwards, Brooks Laich leads the way with seven. The only Capitals who have not been credited with at least one blocked shot are Alexander Semin and Marco Sturm.
The Capitals’ determination to do the little things that are necessary to win in the playoffs was apparent on the game sheet from Game 1 against the Rangers. Washington had blocked 32 shots to New York’s 28. Blocking shots is a signature of a John Tortorella-coached team.
Then, in the opening minutes of Game 2, the Rangers were pressing hard for an early goal, taking four shots in a span of 17 seconds. Alzner and Carlson, however, blocked two of them.
Alzner blocked a shot off Erik Christensen’s stick and immediately dropped to the ice, writhing in pain. The shot Carlson blocked came off the stick of Dan Girardi and was so hard it cracked his skate, necessitating a repair.
“I’ve never seen that happen,” the rookie defenseman said. “I was expecting it to hurt, but it didn’t. But when I skated off, I was wobbling.”
Carlson was fortunate. So was Alzner, who only suffered a bruise.
Alzner, though, hasn’t been taking chances this season, not after a recent rash of injuries around the league caused by blocking shots.
Since training camp, he’s been wearing clear, molded plastic strapped to the front of his skates. They were offered to each Capitals defenseman, but to Alzner’s knowledge he’s the only one using them.
But as he’s found out repeatedly, the guard takes the brunt of less than half of the shots he blocks.
“One got me right between the skate and the back of my shin pad,” Alzner said when asked which blocked shot stung the most during the Rangers series. “That was just bad luck.”
After a pause and a smile, he added, “But it doesn’t hurt anymore, because we won the series.”