By Sean Hartnett
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Shot blocking isn’t glamorous. There aren’t any awards handed out for the annual league leader who throws himself in front the most pucks.READ MORE: Summit One Vanderbilt Observation Deck Opens In Midtown
Any player who collapses in front of a slap shot does so knowing that a broken leg could end their season in an instant. Pieces of ears have been lost diving in front of speeding vulcanized rubber. A bruised shin bone is about as common in the NHL as a hamstring strain is in baseball.
Yet, shot blocking is something the Rangers embrace as a team. It doesn’t matter if you’re a veteran forward, a rugged defenseman, a rookie or a newly acquired teammate. Every one of the Rangers buy in to the ethos of laying out their bodies to accomplish team goals.
“Our d-men, forwards, everyone is willing to block shots,” forward J.T. Miller said. “Our d-men eat pucks continuously and are blocking hundreds of shots. When you see that, everyone knows on the bench and it feels good. It feels good for the crowd. I thought tonight was a good example where we sacrificed the body as a team.”
On Tuesday, the Rangers were outpossessed and outshot, 44-20, by the visiting Anaheim Ducks. While goaltender Henrik Lundqvist’s 43-save effort was vital to the Blueshirts securing a 4-1 victory, the men in front of him blocked 23 shots and kept many of Anaheim’s chances to the perimeter.
“They had a lot of point shots and a lot of shots from the outside,” alternate captain Marc Staal said. “We were pretty solid in not letting them get that second opportunity. We were clearing the net pretty well. Obviously, we’d like to get the puck back quicker and not spend so much time in our own end. It’s something to look at in the next couple days and we’ll try to improve on it.”
Six different Rangers recorded two or more blocked shots on Tuesday night. Captain Ryan McDonagh led the way with five. Staal and Miller each finished with four. Through 53 games, the Rangers rank fifth in the league with 849 blocked shots. That’s an average of 16 per game.
“Guys are committed, that’s how you win,” center Kevin Hayes said. “It’s nice when the older guys and core guys are doing it. It kind of trickles down, as the younger guys like myself and the new guys are doing the same thing.”
Since making his debut on Jan. 27, 2007, alternate captain Dan Girardi has blocked 1,657 shots. No player has blocked more since that date. Following Tuesday’s victory, teammates awarded him the Broadway Hat and he posed for cameras with a cut and bruised right ankle.READ MORE: Police On Hunt For Occupant Of Black Or Dark Blue Honda Wanted In Westfield, N.J. Home Invasion And Sexual Assault
“He leads in blocks every year and doesn’t complain about it,” Hayes said of Girardi. “It’s impressive stuff. It’s definitely recognized in this locker room and he’s a key part of our team.”
Shot blocking is coded into the Rangers’ DNA. It was a constant during John Tortorella’s four-plus seasons behind the bench and has continued to be relied on throughout Alain Vigneault’s three-plus years. From Tortorella’s first full season in charge of the Rangers in 2009-10 to his dismissal following the 2013 playoffs, the Rangers ranked fourth in the NHL with 4,588 blocked shots.
Since Vigneault took the reins in 2013, the Rangers have blocked the 11th-most shots in the league, with 4,441 through 299 games. Much of that decrease is due to the Rangers spending longer spells in the offensive zone and outchancing opponents under Vigneault’s watch. It’s a progression that was sorely needed as Tortorella was unwilling to break from the philosophy of constantly defending in his own end.
While the Rangers have certainly evolved into a team with uptempo leanings in Vigneault’s counter-attacking system, the 55-year-old head coach believes in the value of blocking shots and paying the physical price to eliminate opponents’ shooting lanes.
“I think it’s a skill, it’s something that is needed in today’s game,” Vigneault said. “I think tonight, we were forced to block a lot of shots because we didn’t have the puck as much as we needed to.
“What you like about J.T. (Miller) is that he wants to be out there, wants to make a difference — not only when he has the puck,” Vigneault continued later in the press conference. “You talk about shot blocking tonight, he was one of our best forwards as far as getting into lanes and paying the price. Dan (Girardi) did it a few times, too, but there’s no doubt now that J.T. is making a difference and he wants to make a difference, and that’s what you want from your players.”
There’s going to be nights when the Rangers have to win ugly and once the playoffs come along, the commitment to blocking shots grows.
“It’s part of winning,” Staal said. “Especially going into the last quarter of the season and the playoffs, it’s the way you win games and win series. I think if you can get the mentality where you have to do it to close out a game, everyone needs to be on board.”
Blocking 23 shots and getting outshot more than 2-to-1 isn’t how the Rangers expect to win most games, but desperate times often call for desperate actions. Even though the calendar hasn’t yet hit March, the Rangers are prepared to do the grunt work to win games and that’s something that will serve them well when fractions and small details can separate teams in the postseason.MORE NEWS: Street Teams Canvas Neighborhoods To Bring Medical Care To Vulnerable New Yorkers
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey