NEW YORK – The identity of the New York Rangers boils down to a simple act: blocking a shot. It is literally stitched into the fabric of the organization. Each player is issued gloves with reinforced padding – reinforcing his mission as much as protecting the backs of his hands.
You will face the shooter when he's winding up for a 100-miles-per-hour slapshot. You will stay square, hang your arms at your sides, aim that padding at the puck, make yourself big and act like a goaltender. You will throw your body onto the ice, if necessary. You will take one for the team.
Otherwise, you won't be on the team.
Yeah, it might hurt. It might hurt real bad. But consider the alternative: sitting in a film session with coach John Tortorella and your teammates, getting caught shirking from your duty.
"It's kind of a joke around the locker room," said Rangers winger Mike Rupp. "You get razzed. You don't want to be that guy. So you find a way to do it. It doesn't matter how you do it, as long as it's done and you make sure that puck doesn't go through."
The shame is that the Rangers' identity has become a crisis.
With the Rangers in the Eastern Conference final, holding a 1-0 series lead over the New Jersey Devils, some are portraying the blocked shot as the latest plague on the game, conjured by the same dark forces that brought us clutching and grabbing and the neutral-zone trap.
Well, sorry, but the blocked shot is not a plague. It has little in common with the neutral-zone trap. And it deserves more respect for two basic reasons: One, it can work. Two, it takes guts.
"We were blamed for the trap when we were successful at it," said Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, who has won three Stanley Cups in New Jersey. "Whatever brings success is what you need to do.
"And I know it's probably not the most exciting brand of hockey, but it's really effective. They got it in people's heads by doing what they're doing, and they're tough to play against because of that."
Defense and goaltending have ruled these playoffs, no doubt. The regular season's top eight offensive teams have been eliminated, and the rest of the top 10 didn't make it in the first place. Look at who's left: the Los Angeles Kings ranked second in goals against in the regular season, the Rangers third, the Phoenix Coyotes fifth, the Devils ninth. All play a tight, structured game.
The Washington Capitals, once a wide-open offensive team, emphasized shot-blocking this season in an effort to advance farther in the playoffs. More teams might in the future. The salary cap has spread talent evenly across the league, making it harder to stockpile skill.
Coaches are paid to win, not to entertain, and the most dependable path is defense. You can't teach creativity, but you can teach structure. You can't make a checker a superstar, but you can make a superstar a checker. It takes less talent to block a shot than to score a goal, so all 18 skaters can do it every night – no matter who's slumping, no matter who's missing from the lineup.
But this is not necessarily the end of offense, in relative terms. Each of the last seven Stanley Cup champions ranked in the top eight offensively in the regular season. Four of them ranked in the top three, including Tortorella's Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. One year does not make a trend.
And the blocked shot by itself is not to blame this year. The Rangers ranked fourth in blocked shots in the regular season. The Coyotes? Twenty-first. The Kings? Second-to-last. The Devils? Dead last.
Though the Rangers, Coyotes and Kings have blocked shots at a greater rate in the playoffs, they have all done it at about the same proportion – about three or four more blocks a game. The Devils are blocking shots at about the same low rate. They teach their players not to go down to block shots, because they want them to stay on their skates and stay in the play.
The Rangers are wearing special undershirts during these playoffs. On the front: "the right way …" On the back: "the only way!" But it's not the only right way. It's their way.
"That's the identity of our team," said Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi. "We take a lot of pride in it."
They have to. Their offense drops off dramatically after Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik. They haven't scored four goals in game since the playoff opener. They are better off trying to prevent goals than trying to generate them.
The math is simple. The Rangers have blocked 293 shots in these playoffs. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has a .940 save percentage. If those shots had gotten through, as great as Lundqvist is, the Rangers theoretically would have given up 17.6 more goals. They'd be done by now. They're 9-6 in the playoffs with a plus-6 goal differential.
"You have to play defense to win," Tortorella said. "Blocking shots is playing defense."
If the neutral-zone trap was evil, blocking shots is at least a lesser evil. Clutching, grabbing, obstructing, trapping – all of that was passive-aggressive. It slowed down the game and stopped offense before it even started. It had no redeeming qualities.
Sure, there is something passive about collapsing around the net and clogging shooting lanes, but it is nothing but aggressive to put yourself in front of a speeding bullet. The game is faster than ever before through the middle of the ice.
The blocked shot can be an art form. You need timing, because if you go down too early, the shooter can step around you, and if you go down too late, you can miss the puck and screen your goaltender. You need technique, lining up with the shooter's stick instead of his body, keeping the blade of your stick turned out so you don’t deflect the puck into your face.
The blocked shot requires courage. The equipment has evolved to the point where players have far less fear than they used to. If the puck strikes them the right way, they might not feel it much. But there are still gaps between those pads, and there is still flesh and bone and blood underneath.
Sometimes, there are major injuries – and that is the most practical argument against the blocked shot, risking the health of players who are critical to the lineup and cost millions of dollars. Rangers captain Ryan Callahan suffered a broken hand and broken ankle last season. He missed the playoffs. The Rangers went out in the first round. Yet he keeps blocking and blocking and blocking, and here he is in the conference final now.
"When you're on the ice, it's more reaction than thinking about, 'What's the consequence if I step in front of this shot?' " Callahan said. "You're going to get injuries in your career. It doesn't really faze you."
Major injuries or not, there can be a cumulative effect from all that pounding. Rupp wears size 12-1/2 skates, so he turns them sideways to cover more area – even though he once suffered a broken foot blocking a shot that way.
"There's some times when you just lose a little bit of feeling in your feet as far as nerves," Rupp said. "Just stuff over time, I think. It just kind of deadens."
Asked about the danger, Rangers veteran Ruslan Fedotenko leaned back and smiled. "Yeah, but is hockey dangerous?" he said. "That answers your question. Yeah, it's part of it. If you're not interested, you can find another job."
If you're willing to pay that price, if you're able to survive doing it, if you're able to win that way, if that's your identity, more power to you. You exemplify so many of the qualities we glorify – commitment, sacrifice, toughness.
Kids grow up dreaming of scoring goals, not blocking shots. But ultimately hockey players dream of winning the Stanley Cup, and as much as fans of the game want entertainment, fans of a particular team want a parade. To the Rangers, the end justifies the means.
"You want to win, and then you do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal," Fedotenko said. "If it's laying down and blocking the shot in the last minute of the period or the game and you win the game, you will have to do it. You can't just say, 'Oh, you know what? I just want to score goals.' It's hockey."