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A block party on ice

NHL has revived the art of stopping shots -- at all costs

Blocking shots is nothing new in the NHL. Longtime Bruins fans still hold a special place in their hearts for Don Awrey, the fearless defenseman of the late '60s and early '70s, who routinely dropped to the ice to front steaming slapshots.

"In total disregard for his well-being," recalled ex-Bruin forward Andy Brickley, now a NESN analyst. "No helmet. Double pads stacked. Whatever it took, Awrey did it. Gary Doak had a reputation as a shot-blocker, too. But I think those guys went more on instinct than technique -- they just went at it, and didn't care about getting hurt."

All these decades later, getting in front of pucks has become a heightened priority, a refined technique and somewhat of an art form around the league, in part because of rule changes implemented when the game came out of its lockout mothballs in the summer of 2005.

To begin the 2005-06 NHL season, each offensive zone was expanded by 4 feet (to 64), allowing defensemen, especially on the power play, more space to handle the puck and more time to fire shots. More operating room for the point men has forced penalty-killing forwards to engage far more frequently in shot-blocking.

Likewise, the league's vigilant attempt to eliminate all forms of obstruction has led to a more open, free-flowing game, and increased offensive opportunities. With everyone shooting more, and with hook, hold, and clutch tactics mitigated, coaches leaguewide are demanding that forwards and defensemen use their bodies to shut down shooting lanes and, when necessary, take one for the team. And that's led to a rash of injuries.

"Every coach is different, but they all appreciate a blocked shot," said defenseman Brad Stuart, who jockeys with fellow blue liner Zdeno Chara for the top of the shot-blocking chart in Boston. "Some have ways they want you to do it. Some don't care, as long as it gets done. My approach: Just get in front of it."

"You have to have your mind set before the game," added Chara. "You have to think, 'Hey, whatever it is, whatever the guy shoots or decides to do with the puck, I have to go and sacrifice my body for the team.' "

That's the kind of attitude Bruins coach Dave Lewis is intent on instilling in a team that he felt was lacking badly in shot-blocking skill at the start of the season. In the Lewis handbook, a shot blocked is as valuable as a goal scored, a mantra he repeats endlessly in the dressing room, and nearly as often during his sessions with the media.

Whenever his charges are in defensive mode, Lewis wants their Black-Gold-and-Bruised bodies in shooting lanes, their sticks in passing lanes, their heads and core energy focused on doing whatever is necessary to block that chunk of rubber.

"The biggest part is courage," said Lewis. "The biggest part is having the willingness to get in front of a puck. And there is a value system in that. The value of scoring a goal and blocking a shot should be equal. But they're not in our minds right now -- we have to get to that value system.

"It's just as important to stop an opportunity at the net -- because you might be stopping a goal -- as it is to score a goal. That might sound bizarre. But if you look at winning teams, that's a value that winning teams have, and we have slipped from that."

To sharpen his club's minds and eyes for it, Lewis has reached into the ice bucket for a load of sponge pucks. In drills led by assistant coach Doug Houda, Bruins forwards and defensemen take their turns practicing the art, their risk of injury negated by the use of the squishy biscuits.

"Most of all, it's to establish a mind-set," said Houda. "We want that willingness there, to get in front of pucks. They can slide or stand or go down on one knee. The technique's not so important. We aren't telling them how to do it, but we are telling them they have to do it.

"At the beginning of the year, we weren't doing it at all. We were just standing there. You can see now, when it comes to that time in a game, and desperation kicks in, we have guys going down. That's huge."

Injury and prevention
Shot-blocking is not without risk. The league has been dotted this season with some significant injuries, most often to the feet, that were the result of blocked shots.

In Anaheim, superstar defenseman Chris Pronger remains on the sidelines, his left foot cracked by a shot Dec. 31. He could be out until mid-February. Leafs forward Darcy Tucker suffered multiple foot fractures from a blocked shot two weeks ago and remains sidelined indefinitely. Ex-Bruins blue liner Nick Boynton just returned to the Phoenix roster over the weekend, after being sidelined since late November with a cracked foot. Mike Comrie, recently dealt to Ottawa, required surgery to repair a fractured right foot while with the Coyotes this season, missing 14 games. Colorado defenseman John-Michael Liles recently joined the fractured fraternity and will be out until the middle of next month.

Here in Boston, Glen Murray missed a couple of weeks last season with a badly bruised foot, courtesy of a blocked shot, and P.J. Axelsson missed most of December this season, his left foot fractured when an opponent's slapper caught him by surprise out of a scrum following a faceoff.

"I wasn't trying to make the block," said Axelsson. "That was just bad luck. I think the skate companies are going to come up with something. I know they are working on it."

They're always working on it. That was the message yesterday from Michel Benoit, the Montreal-based vice president of global marketing and product development for Reebok-CCM Hockey. According to Benoit, the manufacturing industry is well aware of an increase in injuries this season. Despite that, he said, skates are significantly more protective nowadays than they were even five years ago, which tells him that part of the issue is how the game is played.

"Designwise, we are trying to keep a very realistic view," said Benoit. "We are dealing with higher-velocity shots, and the players are becoming targets. In the '80s and into the '90s, forwards still got around defensemen and made those long slap shots.

"I'm thinking back now, even to before guys like [Bobby] Hull, [Bill] Barber, and Guy Lafleur. You don't see that anymore. Everyone is getting in the way of those shots, and people are getting hurt. Obviously, it's a top-of-the-mind [issue] for us."

Tony Priolo, owner of Sportmask, the Toronto-based company that produces the protective headgear for Boston goalies Tim Thomas and Hannu Toivonen, figures he may have part of the answer. He'll journey today to Buffalo, where he'll hand his latest innovation to Bruins defenseman Andrew Alberts and Don Del Negro, now in his 14th season as the club's trainer. Alberts is already wearing extra external protection on the insteps of both skates that he believes has significantly minimized his risk of injury.

According to Priolo, he has created a carbon-fiber protector, essentially a cap, that will snap onto the boot with the use of a harness that goes under the boot and around the ankle. It will cover the top of the boot, beginning from just behind the skate's toe, and run the length of the laced area to the point where it meets the bottom of the shinguard. The design is somewhat similar to the cap worn by Axelsson upon his recent return to the lineup, but Priolo contends that he is the only manufacturer using this blend of carbon-fiber, which he claims is 100 times stronger than steel.

"I've spent 10 years of my life researching composite materials," said Priolo, noting the added cost of composite over similar plastic-based devices. "There is no question in my mind that this is the way to go. If you're paying a guy $5 million a year to play, why would you not put the best thing possible on his feet?"

In Phoenix, where the shot-blocking injury bug has had an especially mean bite this year, general manager Mike Barnett said he has been very encouraged by some of the innovative skate designs and materials some of the manufacturers have brought to the training facility in recent weeks. When they're in full production, he said, he is certain they will add much-needed protection.

Meanwhile, Barnett has done some footwork of his own, not long ago finding a pair of old strap-on leather ankle protectors that were in vogue among defensemen, and a forward or two, as far back as the 1960s.

"They were made by Drolet," Barnett recalled. "You know, real vintage Teddy Green stuff."

Barnett handed the guards over to the Coyotes training staff, and with the assistance of a Phoenix-area shoemaker, the Coyotes now have enough sets of the old-style protectors to outfit the entire Desert Dog defensive corps. Coach Wayne Gretzky prefers that his backliners wear the retro protectors in practice -- an old trick for the new-age team.

"We'll see what happens with the prototypes that we've been looking at," said Barnett. "What I've seen of them, they are absolutely brilliant, both in structure and style. They're carbon, lightweight, and molded to the ankle. Now, that said, it's one thing to be state-of-the-art and all that, and it's another thing to get a strong-willed defenseman to wear them."

Modern masters
Meanwhile, the blocking beat goes on. Boston's Peter Chiarelli, like most GMs, scrutinizes stat sheets after games. Two of his favorite categories to review: faceoffs and blocked shots.

"Those numbers let you know if you are executing," he said. "And leaguewide, you know the players who are good at blocking shots."

The top dog these days is Ottawa's Anton Volchenkov, averaging 3.45 blocks per game.

"He's taken it to a new level," said Chiarelli, the former Senators assistant GM. "I've seen him play all these years, and this year he's even better."

The Thrashers have two defensemen, Greg DeVries and Niclas Havelid, among the top five blockers in the league. Defenseman Jay McKee, now in St. Louis after making his blocking bones in Buffalo, has been considered among the best in recent years.

The NHL may have the most impressive array of trophies in all pro sports, but it doesn't have any hardware for the No. 1 shot blocker. But as shots increase, and the pressure ratchets up on the shot-blocking brotherhood, maybe one day there will be something shiny for the guys with all the shiners.

"There are more skilled guys in the game than ever now," said Bruins pivot Marc Savard, "and it takes some real [guts] to block those shots. Thankfully, we've got some guys who are good at it and willing to pay the price."