Every time Craig Ludwig, the preeminent shot blocker of his era, finished a playoff win, he would peel off his jersey and with a marker strike through another number on his T-shirt, which was enumerated from 16 down to one. The tacit message in his gesture: Sixteen strokes equals one Stanley Cup. No style points in the postseason.
"It's about winning, however you get it done," says Ludwig, a defenseman who appeared in 177 postseason games and won Cups with the Canadiens (in 1986) and the Stars (1999). "People are looking at shot blocking now. Well, guys were blocking shots in the '50s and '60s. Back then you didn't want your so-called superstars fighting or laying down in front of shots. Now a few of those guys do it, suddenly it's world news."
There is something honorable, and occupationally useful, in throwing oneself in the way of a hunk of vulcanized rubber traveling 90 mph—shot blocking requires a modicum of moxie that stands in contrast to the clutch-and-grab tactics that epitomized the Dead Puck Era—but it hardly ensures playoff success.
The Kings, who lost just twice in their first 13 postseason games, rank 11th among the 16 playoff teams, having blocked 179 shots while allowing 365 through on goalie Jonathan Quick. Meanwhile, the similarly forechecking Devils (sidebar), who trailed the Rangers 2--1 in the Eastern Conference finals after a 3--0 loss last Saturday, ranked 15th. The Capitals, eliminated in the second round, blocked more than a third of the shots taken in their zone, including the puck that bounced off the rump of Alex Ovechkin on May 8, a block widely interpreted as Ovechkin "buying in" rather than as a quasicomical sequence involving a four-time 50-plus goal scorer who might have better served offense-starved Washington by being more productive at the other end of the ice.
The defensive posture championed by New York, which leads the postseason with 328 blocks, has produced reflexive hand-wringing about boring playoff hockey. Rangers coach John Tortorella even suggested the NHL should consider reinserting the red line. "Look at the puck possession teams," he noted before the conference finals began. "They're out." If the hockey occasionally has been soporific, Tortorella's emphasis on blocked shots likely will no more become a template than, say, the Ducks bullying their way to a title in 2007. Like puck possession (the Red Wings in '08, the Penguins in '09) or in-your-face physicality (the Bruins in '11), Cup winners negotiate different paths.
Certainly fans have been enthralled. While playoff ratings are down in Canada—hockey's homeland has had no representative since Round 1—NBC and its sister networks are boasting a 12% increase over 2011.
There is nothing untoward about a little block party.
WILL SCHNEEKLOTH/ICON SMI (RANGERS)
BLUE WALL OF SILENCERS New York leads the playoffs in blocks, frustrating scorers such as Kovalchuk (17) by protecting Lundqvist (30).