It is not so much a skill as it is a state of mind for Karl Alzner, who counts stepping in front of whizzing, frozen-solid hockey pucks as a routine part of his job.
He has the injuries to show for it: two or three broken hands, four or five broken fingers — it’s gotten hard to keep track. He is reminded of them when he has trouble opening a jar at home, gripping weights during a workout or plucking his stick off the rack. But Alzner, a 28-year-old defenseman for the Washington Capitals, has played in 528 consecutive games despite his penchant for danger.
Only two players have more than his 678 blocked shots since the start of the 2013-14 season, and all Alzner can point to is luck.
Andre Burakovsky “messes up his knuckle and it’s just bad so he can’t even play,” Alzner said after the Capitals practiced Tuesday. “Where I just seem to get it in spots where it’s still playable.”
That makes the line between health and inactivity no wider than an inch?
“Even less,” Alzner said. “Way less.”
Shot blocking includes technique, strategy and, above all else, will. It does not include a proven way to avoid injury, so shot blockers put trust in their pads (that don’t cover everything), bodies (that, while conditioned to physical pain, are still human) and a precarious element of chance.
Burakovsky, a 22-year-old forward for the Capitals, injured his right hand while blocking a shot on Feb. 9 and has not played since. Burakovsky said he will be back in the lineup for Saturday’s game in Tampa Bay. But Burakovsky missed 15 games and said it was “just a little bit of bad luck” that the puck struck his right hand instead of a less vulnerable part of his body.
Alzner, on the other hand, has avoided surgery despite all his hand-related injuries. The margin is both minuscule and inexplicable, much like the curious practice of tossing your body in front of a flying block of vulcanized rubber.
“Everyone’s got their own way of blocking shots, everyone does. Some guys go knee down. I usually try to get out of the way and let the goalie make the save,” Capitals forward Justin Williams said through a laugh. “No … blocking shots is not really an ability, it’s a willingness and we have a bunch of guys on our team who are willing to do it every night.”
Count forward Tom Wilson among them.
In the Capitals’ win over Philadelphia on March 4, Wilson found himself alone with Flyers defenseman Michael Del Zotto on the left side of the ice. As Del Zotto wound up for a slap shot, Wilson fully turned around and Del Zotto fired the puck into his backside. It missed all of Wilson’s padding, caromed into the crowd and left a big bruise on his tailbone.
“It was kind of a desperation play and I kind of went down on one knee and my momentum carried me,” Wilson said. “ … that’s the kind of spot where you just hope it hits you and hope it doesn’t go in the net.”
Shot blockers don’t normally use their tailbones to keep the puck out. Alzner, who ranks ninth in the NHL this season with 148 blocked shots, goes down to one knee when the game is at even strength but avoids leaving his feet on the power play. Wilson usually stays standing at even strength because, with more players on the ice, he doesn’t “need to get as big.”
The overarching strategy is to cut off half the net and give the goaltender a smaller window to cover. Alzner likes to take away the far side to limit dangerous rebounds, but that can change based on the shooter, angle and situation. Then the last step is staring down the shot as long as possible before whipping your face out of harm’s way.
“With guys who turn their heads right away, good, patient forwards take a second and then step around you,” Alzner said. “It’s hard to stare at a puck that’s coming at you that fast, but it’s kind of the main thing.”
Then Alzner smiled and shook his head.
“After that,” he said, “you just close your eyes and hope it doesn’t hit you in the wrong spot.”