NEW YORK -- It might be the highest form of bravery in a sport known for its brutality.
Where else but in the Stanley Cup playoffs will you find professional athletes willingly sliding in front of slabs of vulcanized rubber traveling at more than 90 miles per hour?
The Capitals and Rangers each will play their 13th playoff game tonight at Madison Square Garden. Through 12 games, the Caps lead the NHL with 244 blocked shots. The Rangers are second with 232.
Thats a lot of bruises.
Isnt hockey dangerous? Rangers forward Ruslan Fedotenko asked with a smile. Its part of it. If youre not interested you can find another job.
We want to win and you do whatever it takes to accomplish it. If it means laying down and blocking a shot in the last minute of a period or in a game thats what you have to do. You cant just say I want to score goals.
Fedotenko should know. He won a Stanley Cup with John Tortorella and the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and with Dan Bylsma and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. He said Tortorella first stressed the need for shot blocking in 2004 and teams have been increasing its importance ever since.
Its pretty simple, Capitals center Brooks Laich said. If the puck doesnt get to the net it cant go in.
The Rangers were among the league leaders during the regular season with 1,338 blocked shots. The Capitals finished seventh with 1,302, up from 1,257 under Bruce Boudreau last season.
But the disparity in the playoffs shows a greater difference. In nine playoff games last year the Capitals blocked 159 shots. Through 12 playoff games this year they are at 244.
Theyve been doing a good job and theyve been playing a really hard defensive style, Fedotenko said of the Capitals. And thats definitely not the same way its been for the Capitals in the last three years. Give them credit.
The Capitals shot blocking brigade is led by their defensemen. John Carlson has a team-high 30 blocks, followed by Roman Hamrik 28, Karl Alzner 27, Mike Green 23 and Jeff Schultz 20.
Laich leads the forwards with 19 blocks, followed by Nicklas Backstrom 13, Jay Beagle 12, Troy Brouwer 12 and Matt Hendricks 11.
Laich said that at the start of a season the last thing players want to do is get in the way of opponents shots. But as the season gets shorter and the playoffs draw close every team steps up its shot blocking.
It is a bit of a fine art, he said. It sounds weird against a guy who is going to take a 90 mile an hour slap shot, but if you can get as close to it as possible you can control where you take it. If youre 15 feet back it might rise and hit you in the shoulder.
Hendricks agreed, but said there have been dozens of instances in which the Capitals have forced the Rangers to shoot wide or pass the puck by going down to block shots.
If you are in the shooting lane a lot of times he wont take the shot, Hendricks said.. Hell throw it wide or throw it around the boards. Or hell hit you.
Brouwer pointed out its not just the third- and fourth-line players getting in front of shots. Backstrom has four more blocks than he had last spring and Alex Ovechkins eight blocks are five more than last year.
We expect Ovechkin to at least get in front of those shots, Brouwer said. Were not asking him to lay down in front of those huge one-timers. Thats why hes not on the penalty kill. You dont want him to run the risk of getting hurt and having us down to just a few forwards who can score.
Fedotenko said he doesnt necessarily feel the team that blocks the most shots will go on to win the Cup, but
Its commitment, he said. The most committed team will win the Cup. Its everything. Its scoring the goals, blocking the shots, backchecking. Skill could prevail in certain situations, but will usually wins the Cup.