HAPPENS

Everybody and their dog knows by now that the New York Rangers were the fourth best team in the NHL in shot-blocking, their prowess widely discussed in the first two games of their series against the New Jersey Devils.

It’s become the series of shot blocking. The CBC crew have theorized that certain Devils forwards have become scared of releasing the puck for fear of reprisal. Ilya Kovalchuk had 11 attempts in Game 1 and just 5 in Game 2. Zach Parise had 7 and 1. The Devils as a whole have fired 121 pucks at Henrik Lundqvist, compared to just 95 for the Rangers.

So “shot blocking” may be overblown. The Rangers have blocked 20 more attempts than the Devils, for sure, but the Devils are leading in “unblocked shot attempts” 79 to 73 through the first two games and 70-50 at even strength.

This draft has been sitting in the editor since December. It’s also unedited. My writing is subpar, it happens:

One of the more recurring criticisms I read for the application of advanced hockey statistics to the game is that hockey does not lend itself to numerical analysis the same way that, say, baseball does. After all, baseball is a series of one-offs, pitch-by-pitch, the action is minimal  and the events are easier to record onto the page.

The late, great George Carlin pointed out the greatest difference between baseball and other sports, in that baseball is the only sport that “you can’t watch in a mirror”. Baseball is otherwise, as much as any, a sport of situational strategy, momentum swings and teamwork. Or at least it was back in the 1970s. The sort of criticism drawn by guys like Gabriel Desjardins for questioning hockey’s conventional wisdom, I’ve noticed, is similar to the sort of grief Bill James picked up back in the 1970s and 80s when he stepped back and took a look at baseball for what it really was.

Hockey can be watched in a mirror (“sure, the numbers are backwards,” quips Carlin) and baseball can’t, but the two sports have similarities:

“Baseball teaches you situations — ‘What are you going to do with the ball when the ball comes to you?’” said Mike Tanev. “I introduced that system to Christopher when he was 7 years old — ‘What are you going to do with the puck when the puck comes to you?’”

This is taken from one of my favourite player profiles ever written because there is so much information present. Mike Tanev was passing along hockey wisdom to an undersized and un-drafted hockey player who somehow became a guy who played in three more Stanley Cup Finals games than I ever will. While Chris Tanev, though 22, is spending his days with an AHL affiliate, his smarts will make him one day a regular NHL defenseman, though you wouldn’t be able to tell when he was a 16-year old weighing 120 lbs.

The important lesson with Tanev is that hockey is much like baseball, as much as snowboarding or synchronized diving is like baseball. You always have to think ahead to your next move. The puck moves quickly, but if you can memorize its movements and guess its progress, you will be at an advantage. Wayne Gretzky would trace the puck’s location with a pencil over a blank sheet of paper when watching a hockey game as a kid, knowing that, to be successful, he’d have to go to the parts of the ice where the lines he drew intersected the most.

Here we come to shot blocking: I know that hockey is much like baseball, because the two sports offer up talents that marginal utility players seem to do rather well. In baseball, it’s the stolen base. Old-timers love a stolen base, because it isn’t something that the glory-hog home run hitters know how to do. They have to slide into the bag, get their uniform dirty, and risk contact. Gritty.

The shot block is so, so similar to this. No coach, member of the press gallery, or teammate is going to complain that a player dove in front of a Zdeno Chara bomb during a play. They’ll praise him and worship his bruises, cite his play as being indicative of a “good Canadian kid” and emphatic of the values that we like to bestow on hockey players. Hard work, paying the price, playing through the pain, yadda yadda yadda. But what really happens on a shot block? It’s just another point in the game where the puck was in the player’s defensive zone.

Hockey is a thinking man’s game, just like baseball. Slightly quicker, maybe, with more variables, but it remains a series of one-off events. Faceoffs, clearing attempts, one-on-one situations with a forward barreling in towards a defender, a shooter in a prime shooting location versus the goalie…

Shot-blocking is just one of those things. It’s a play made inside the defensive zone.

The guys will tell you that the Rangers, who blocked 1338 shots this season, are the fourth best shot-blocking team in the league. What they won’t tell you is that the New York Islanders, Minnesota Wild and Montreal Canadiens all blocked more shots, yet missed the playoffs.

As for the bottom of the league, the Devils, Los Angeles Kings, Detroit Red Wings, Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks rounded out the bottom five in blocked shots.

All of these teams made the playoffs.

Not to say that one or two shot blocks on a penalty kill isn’t something to be appreciated, after all, the defender made sure that the puck didn’t get through to the net, but consider that if players keep needing to block shots, they’re spending piles of time in the defensive zone.

So it isn’t that “don’t block shots, then you’re team will succeed”, it’s about whether a not a team spends a lot of time in the defensive end. Certain teams do, certain teams don’t, but it isn’t fair to note the teams that ARE good at shot blocks without mentioning those that AREN’T and do succeed.

By the way, the final four are 4th, 21st, 29th and 30th in shot blocks. Last year, they were 8th, 15th, 18th and 25th. The year before, we’re looking at 3rd, 5th, 17th and 19th. There’s no formula.

I don’t mind teams that block shots as much as those that trap in the neutral zone because there are shot attempts and scoring chances that, well, happen. Remember, the Rangers aren’t perfect, and despite them blocking a large amount of attempts, I do not think that they are close to being the best team out of the remaining four.

So that’s why they are playing. The Kings will roll over any remaining teams, and, you know, it doesn’t matter whether they block shots. What matters is that they have the puck in the right end more than any other team.