Defensemen are stepping up shot-blocking
This might not be the best time to talk about defense after the Islanders' 6-1 clobbering at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday night. In fact, though, the Islanders happen to be one of the league's more competent practitioners of a modern-day hockey goal-prevention strategy.
Halfway through this lockout-shortened season, the Islanders have blocked 397 shots, which is sixth in the league and four spots ahead of the Rangers (380), who loudly preach a commitment to shot-blocking. During the full 2011-12 season, the Islanders led the NHL with 1,364 blocks.
The tactic has become increasingly emphasized since rule changes after the lost-to-lockout 2004-05 season. With the elimination of legal clutching, grabbing and downright mugging by defenders in front of their goal, other means of offensive prevention became necessary. A different form of mayhem on defense.
"Years ago," said Islanders coach Jack Capuano, himself a former defenseman, "you could crosscheck guys in front of your net, clear guys out. Now teams front. Do they stay on the defensive side of the guy? Do they front pucks? Do they have to get more shot-blocking?"
Third-year defenseman Travis Hamonic, who blocked four shots against Pittsburgh and ranks 23rd in the league with 51 blocks in 26 games, still was playing junior hockey when the rules were changed.
"I remember using the old 'can opener' in front of the net," Hamonic said. "That's when the guy is standing in front of you and you basically take your stick and put it between his legs and twist one way or the other and get him turned around.
"And I was always taught to get your stick up in a crosscheck position, tuck it in the back of the [offensive] player's pants. Usually, you can get your stick in there and put him down pretty good. Little tricks like that. I loved it.
"Obviously, now -- I wish you could -- you can't do that."
A decade ago, the Minnesota Wild led the league with 367 blocked shots in 82 games. At the time, defenders often would assume what was known as the "flamingo" position: stand on one leg and lift the other to allow a hard slap shot to harmlessly pass. The season after restrictions on crosschecking were implemented, 2005-06, there were 22 teams with in excess of 1,000 blocks apiece, a remarkable shift.
"For sure, blocking shots is bigger now," said fifth-year defenseman Andrew MacDonald, whose 68 blocks this season are fifth-highest in the league.
"I've never looked at the numbers but, back in the day, it was never really asked of players to step in front of pucks. Their job was more to tie up the other guy. Now there's a lot more emphasis on getting in the shot lane, and then you've got to do whatever you can."
Against Washington on Saturday, MacDonald blocked five shots, one of which cracked the boot on his right skate. (He also needed seven stitches when clipped in the chin by a stick.)
Capuano reminded that defensive work "is all five guys, making sure of having good gaps when [the offense] enters the zone, making sure you're taking away time and space, and having an active stick. And, yeah, you have to sacrifice your body, have a willingness to block shots."
Mostly it is the defensemen who must access that inclination to put themselves between the goal and a puck of hard, vulcanized rubber traveling roughly 100 miles per hour.
"Some nights," MacDonald said, "you get some pretty tough stingers in bad spots, around your feet. And other days you get it right in the shin pads and you're just, 'Oh, thank God.' "