The New York Rangers have long established the foundation of their team defense on an unflinching willingness to block shots. On Wednesday night in its 2-1 overtime victory, though, Washington bested the Rangers in that department with 32 blocks – the most in any of the 29 postseason games during Coach Bruce Boudreau’s tenure.
It’s an impressive stat and was the topic du jour at Kettler Capitals Iceplex following an optional skate, but in one discussion veteran reporter Joseph White from the Associated Press commented that it likely isn’t the “sexiest stat” out there for hockey fans.
Immediately upon processing the remark, amiable Capitals’ defenseman Karl Alzner replied, “It is to me.” It brought a bit of laughter from the rest of the media members assembled, but the 22-year-old blueliner was serious.
“It might sound weird but I pride myself on doing that — not being afraid to just dive in front of one,” Alzner said. “I think that guys on our team do that all the time. We block little ones here and there that go off sticks and that sometimes go unnoticed. We’re okay if nobody says anything or it doesn’t show up on the score sheet, that’s fine. We know that at least we’re getting our sticks in the right spot and it’s good for our confidence when we’re out there.”
To be certain, the statistic of blocked shots is always a little open to interpretation by the person keeping track in any particular building, but the significance is clear. To block shots is to “pay the price,” or care more about the team goal than personal health or safety in order to prevent a puck from reaching the net.
A willingness to absorb a shot is not necessarily new for the Capitals, especially since the switch to a more defensive system in the middle of the 2010-11 season. Washington finished seventh in the NHL in shots blocked in the regular season with 1,257 and five different players with at least 109.
“Shot blocking has become a part of hockey and if you don’t do it you’re not going to be successful,” Boudreau said. “You look at all the best defensive teams in the league and their defense 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 more.”
The Capitals may not always hustle to make a dramatic lunge in front of a slap shot, as is the common image of blocking shots — like the way Brian Boyle did in overtime when he took a booming attempt by John Carlson off his knee on Wednesday. But if they can maintain correct positioning they may not need to all that often either.
“It’s been a growing part,” Alzner said of shot-blocking’s role in the Capitals’ game. “Guys are willing to take a puck off anywhere to make sure that they block it. 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, 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.”
Alzner and Jeff Schultz led the Capitals with eight and six blocks, respectively, in Game 1. There were times in that opening contest where not only did blocked shots stymie an offensive possession for the Rangers but where it also sent Washington the other way and helped it break out of the defensive zone.
“I guess it’s just part of our team identity in blocking shots,” Schultz said. “There’s times where you can kind of be in no-man’s land and have to and other times where it just kind of hits you, but it’s just about sacrificing your body and putting the team first.”