There are many reasons why Tuukka Rask plays goalie for the Bruins. He’s played the position his entire life. He’s very good at it. He’s wearing gear that protects him from frozen pucks that angry men shoot his way at 100 miles per hour.
Stopping the puck is Rask’s job. Not that of his teammates.
“Just stay in the lane and try not to play goalie,” Rask said of what he wants from the men in front of him. “A lot of times when you try to stop it like a goalie, you open up holes and screen the goalie even more. Our guys do a pretty good job of focusing on the puck, staying in the lane, and not trying to do too much.”
Goalies such as Rask are playing the position better than ever. If they see the puck, they’re going to stop it. Even if they don’t see it, they’re big and technical enough to get into position and be stop-and-block robots.
Yet the game continues to emphasize the significance of blocking shots, regardless of the hazards that are inherent in the practice.
A defenseman who steps in front of a shot takes away his goalie’s eyes. The puck may glance off a defenseman’s stick or body, causing a late deflection that catches a goalie with his pants down. The frozen hunk of rubber can break bones of players who are not armored up like a goalie, making them unavailable for months (see Adam McQuaid and his broken thumb) when it might have been preferable just to get the heck out of the way.
McQuaid was unlucky. Kevin Shattenkirk’s slap shot hit McQuaid when he opened his right hand and exposed an unprotected patch. But there are other areas where skaters are at risk of injury. Trouble spots include ankles, toes, inside of the feet, and faces. A goalie wears gear that covers all these areas.
“I don’t think I’m ready to change a philosophy because of that one injury,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “You have to think about those things when they happen. How can we make it better? Right now, I don’t have the solution. I think there’s a lot more good things coming out of blocking shots right now than negative.”
As an example, Julien points to the strategy of turning a blocked shot into a scoring chance the other way. If an opposing defenseman winds up for a point shot, two things can happen. One of the defending forwards can close on the defenseman at the point. In front of the net, a defending defenseman can fill the shooting lane and front the down-low forward.
There are two possible results: The forward can block the shot and slip away. Or the net-front defenseman can step in front of the shot and hit the forward for a breakaway. These two maneuvers can turn an opposing shot into a Grade-A scoring chance.
The Canadiens are among the best in the league at pulling this off. They pack it in defensively and blow the zone after a blocked shot.
Rask doesn’t mind when forwards challenge the points. That’s their job. Even if they prevent him from seeing the shooter’s release, there’s enough distance between the shot and the net for Rask to pick up its trajectory and slide into the right position.
But when his defensemen try to block shots, more things can go wrong.
“The D’s should take their man instead of focusing on blocking the shot if they’re in position of taking their man,” Rask said. “That’s how we got burned earlier in the year. Guys were focusing on the puck and trying to block it. They forgot about the other guy. There’s a shot, rebound, and an empty net.”
The NHL’s shot-blocking statistics are not entirely reliable. Off-ice officials at one rink may count more blocks than those from another arena. But entering the weekend, the five teams credited with the most blocks were Calgary, Montreal, Buffalo, Colorado, and Arizona. Only the Flames and Canadiens are in playoff position, and they are both being outshot and outpossessed, which signal a decline in future performance. Teams that are blocking more shots are generally chasing the puck instead of controlling it.
Coaches may not want their players to change their shot-blocking approaches. They like how a blocked shot can scrub out a chance. Blocking a shot shows that a player is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the team, which pleases every man standing behind a bench.
But if the players listened to their goalies before their coaches, they would step in front of pucks only when a full and complete block is possible.
“If you’re going to be in front, you’d better block it,” Torey Krug said. “If it gets through, you can get screwed. It’s got to be 100 percent.”
Blues were in no rush to promote Allen
Cam Ward was 21 years old when he backstopped Carolina to the Stanley Cup. Marc-Andre Fleury was also 21 when he became a full-time NHLer. John Gibson was 20 when he appeared in four playoff games last season.
These goalies are the exception. Jake Allen is a better example of reality.
Allen is 24 years old. He was St. Louis’s second-round pick in 2008. He did not become a full-time NHL goalie until this year. By then, Drew Doughty, who also was selected in 2008, had won two Cups and dressed in 442 NHL games.
There is no rushing goalies, even a high-pedigree one such as Allen, who was the fourth netminder drafted in 2008 (Chet Pickard, Tom McCollum, and Jacob Markstrom went before him).
“I felt I could have played up here last year, as well,” said Allen. “But I wanted to go back down and play as many games as I could.”
Allen did just that for Chicago, St. Louis’s AHL affiliate. Allen dressed in a career-high 52 games. He responded to the heavy workload by posting a 33-16-3 record with a 2.03 goals-against average and .928 save percentage, all career bests. Had the Blues tried to accelerate Allen’s development, he might not have learned how to win in the AHL and bring that performance up to the varsity.
“Rebounds, learning the game, being a student of the game, understanding what’s going on around you constantly,” Allen said of the things he worked on in the AHL. “Guys are so much smarter, quicker, faster. It’s just knowing yourself and knowing the little details that are going to make the difference. Once you figure that out, most goalies will be all right.”
This season, Allen is 5-2-0 with a 2.00 GAA and .922 save percentage. With Allen supporting starter Brian Elliott, the Blues have the best GAA in the league (2.00). They are especially stingy in five-on-five play, where through 19 games their save percentage was .940.
But where Allen has made his biggest contribution is on the payroll. Ryan Miller, acquired from Buffalo last season, never adjusted to the Blues’ system. Miller did not do anything in the playoffs to merit more years in St. Louis. But the Blues’ decision to say goodbye to Miller coincided with Allen’s graduation from the AHL. Had Allen not been ready, general manager Doug Armstrong would have had to explore secondary options to complement Elliott.
Miller is costing Vancouver $6 million per season for three years. Allen is in the second season of a two-year, $1.6 million contract. The Blues applied the savings toward skaters such as Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera, two of their top three centers. Stastny was Armstrong’s big-ticket signing, one that also made division rival Colorado much weaker. Lehtera, meanwhile, has been centering Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz on the league’s most explosive line.
Allen may become the ace. But the Blues are being patient. Last week, Allen was the last player off the TD Garden ice following the morning skate. With help from the healthy scratches, goaltending coach Jim Corsi ran Allen through multiple drills.
The previous evening, Corsi was in Toronto, attending the Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Dominik Hasek, his former pupil in Buffalo. In terms of teachers, Allen’s got one of the best.
Dry run prior to OT didn’t work out well
There was universal agreement on the failure of the pre-overtime dry scrape, which the GMs agreed to ditch after a little more than a month of play. The Zambonis took too long — more than six minutes, in some cases — to remove the snow from the ice at the end of regulation.
It killed the buzz in the building. TV viewers clicked to other channels. Some never returned. The players’ legs went away as they sat on the bench.
But two good things came from the experiment:
First, the GMs tried something new to decrease the number of games going to shootouts, the red nose and clown shoes of hockey. It is a cheap and degrading gimmick that turns outcomes into coin flips. They believed a no-snow zone would make for cleaner skating, better passes, and more scoring chances.
Second, the GMs recognized it wasn’t working and eliminated it immediately.
The NHL is not one for on-the-fly changes. Its stewards prefer to evaluate new ideas through time and data. The GMs like conducting breakout groups to discuss granular segments of the game. They look to other leagues such as the AHL, which has implemented three-on-three play in overtime, as test labs before trying changes in the NHL.
This time, common sense worked out. The GMs acknowledged that humans pushing shovels would do the job faster and just as well as Zambonis.
Adam Clendening takes advantage of first shot
Former Boston University defenseman Adam Clendening launched his NHL career in the best way possible: by scoring his first career goal. On Thursday, in Chicago’s 4-3 win over Calgary, Clendening one-timed his first NHL shot past Flames goalie Jonas Hiller. Clendening became the third current Blackhawk to score on his first shot, joining Jonathan Toews and Andrew Shaw. The Blackhawks promoted Clendening to replace fellow Hockey East alum Trevor van Riemsdyk, who is out 3-4 months because of a broken kneecap. If Clendening can prove he is worthy of NHL play, he could be a full-time replacement next season for Michal Rozsival, who will become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. The Blackhawks are not likely to re-sign the 36-year-old Rozsival.
Andrej Sekera’s price is increasing
On July 1, Andrej Sekera will become very rich. The Hurricane will be the most sought-after defenseman in unrestricted free agency because of his smooth skating and steady three-zone play. The left-shot Sekera will be 29 years old then, still well within the sweet spot of his career. So it stands to reason that the small-market Hurricanes will not be in a good position to re-up Sekera before then, considering he could do much better on the free market. Carolina’s top-heavy deals, such as those for Eric Staal ($8.25 million annually), Alexander Semin ($7 million), Cam Ward ($6.3 million), and Jordan Staal ($6 million) will not leave GM Ron Francis much wiggle room to bring back a dependable defenseman such as Sekera. Trading Sekera is the more likely scenario.
Vladimir Sobotka hasn’t been missed
The Blues took a hit this summer when ex-Bruin Vladimir Sobotka signed to play in the KHL. Sobotka was a favorite of coach Ken Hitchcock because of his abrasive play and three-zone work in the middle. But the Blues have survived the departure of their do-it-all forward. They re-signed Steve Ott, their fourth-line center. Some of Sobotka’s shifts have gone to Jori Lehtera, who’s taken off with the opportunity. The 26-year-old Lehtera, St. Louis’s third-round pick in 2008, plays a creative but dependable two-way game. The Blues retain control over Sobotka if the center opts to return to the NHL. But there may not be room for him in St. Louis.
Marian Hossa not hitting his target
The Blackhawks entered this weekend in seventh place in the Western Conference, which is not a spot they are used to seeing. But their spot in the standings does not reflect their overall play. Chicago remains the league’s elite puck-possession team in even-strength play. Their star players are healthy. Corey Crawford has been excellent (8-4-1, 1.97 GAA, .926 save percentage). Their main issue has been bad luck, with Marian Hossa being front and center. The do-it-all wing always has the puck on his stick. It’s just that when it comes off his blade, it’s not going in the net. Through 19 games, Hossa had buried only 3.4 percent of his shots, the worst shooting percentage of his career. Hossa had only two goals on 58 shots. By comparison, Hossa scored 30 goals on 241 shots last season (12.4 percent). He didn’t forget how to score. Those shots will start going in.
Doubleheader for Rocco Grimaldi
On Tuesday, San Antonio, Florida’s AHL affiliate, hosted Oklahoma City at the AT&T Center at 8:30 a.m. Pacific time. That was a good thing for Rocco Grimaldi and the Panthers. That morning, prior to Florida’s night game in Los Angeles, the Panthers learned that Aleksander Barkov would be unavailable to play because he was sick. This left the Panthers a forward short. So two periods into San Antonio’s game against Oklahoma City, Grimaldi scooted out of the rink with his gear, returned to his home, then made the 1,300-mile flight to Los Angeles. After landing three AHL shots on goal that morning, the 21-year-old Grimaldi recorded two NHL shots in 10:36 of ice time that night. Must be nice to be young.
There aren’t many defensive pairings better than Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo. Among some of the elite duos — Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, Jake Muzzin and Drew Doughty being others — Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo are probably the best at executing rapid regroups because of their skating and vision. This keeps opponents from changing lines or getting set defensively . . . The prompt canning of the dry scrape has left some networks scrambling. Because they had projected a five-minute pause after regulation, they had sold part of the time to advertisers. Now that the post-regulation window is down to approximately two minutes, the networks are trying to give back some of that sold time elsewhere in their broadcasts . . . For the Maple Leafs, there was one good thing about Nashville’s 9-2 thrashing of Toronto on Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre. At Columbus’s Nationwide Arena, the ear-wrecking cannon blasts after every home goal. Had the Leafs been in Columbus for the nine-spot, everybody in the building would have reported to the nearest emergency room with eardrum damage.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.