For the first time in fifteen years, the Rangers are one of the final four teams standing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This is unfamiliar territory for them: The hockey world has just two series to pay attention to now, and on the nights the Eastern Conference teams are in action, they’re playing in the only game on the league’s schedule. And with this increased attention on the Rangers — as well as on the Devils — each team’s style is being dissected by a growing number of observers. It’s the nature of a deep playoff run: Things that diehards have long known are discovered by increasingly larger audiences. And since the end of Game 1 on Monday night, the topic du jour in the Eastern Conference Finals has been shot-blocking.
The Rangers, of course, have been throwing themselves in front of pucks all season long. But the conference finals breathe new life into the story line not just because it’s one of the defining characteristics of this team, but because it’s a way to contrast the Rangers with the Devils. A USA Today piece on the Rangers’ commitment to shot-blocking, for instance, notes that they’ve blocked more than twice as many shots as the Devils in this postseason (and in two fewer games, no less). And because the Rangers are hardly the only team in the league that now places an importance on blocking shots, NHL games this spring have sparked a larger debate about whether shot-blocking is ruining the sport the way many believe the neutral-zone trap once did. (To listen to one such discussion, we point you to the always enjoyable “Marek vs. Wyshynski” podcast.)
This, in turn, has led to all sorts of specific Rangers-Devils story lines: After all, it was New Jersey that made use of the trap during their glory years in the nineties and early aughts. Even Martin Brodeur is aware that shot-blocking and the neutral-zone trap are being mentioned these days in the same breath, even though they’re very different tactics. From the Star-Ledger:
“I’m the wrong guy to ask. We were blamed for the trap. We were successful at it,” Brodeur said today as the Devils stayed off the ice and in the video room in an effort to find some shooting lanes for Game 2.
“Whatever brings success is what you need to do. I know (shot-blocking) is probably not the most exciting brand of hockey, but it’s really effective. They’ve gotten into people’s heads by doing what they are doing. They’re tough to play against because of that.”
John Tortorella was also asked about the debate over shot-blocking yesterday, but — and you’re not going to believe this — he didn’t want to talk about it. “Oh, I’m not getting into any of that stuff,” said the coach.
Devils coach Peter DeBoer, meanwhile, downplayed the Rangers’ shot-blocking. “It’s definitely not the story of the series,” said DeBoer. “They’re a good shot-blocking team. Every team you play has strengths in certain areas and that’s one of the Rangers’ strengths. One of the strengths of the New Jersey Devils is our penalty kill. It’s something you have to deal with.” (He also said that he’s not worried about it ruining the game: Via the Star-Ledger: “Shot-blocking has been around for 30 years. Some teams do it better than others.”)
Shot-blocking is even at the center of a micro controversy in this series, stemming from this Brodeur quote:
“They’re hot. They’re blocking pucks. Hopefully we’ll be able to hurt a few guys getting one-timers in the foot or their head or something,” Brodeur said. “Right now they’re paying the price to win and obviously that’s what hockey is about.”
The comments caused enough of a stir that the Devils responded to it. Also from ESPN New York:
“That was obviously not intent of his comments at all,” a Devils spokesman said. “He would never even think like that. It’s just an off-the-cuff comment. What he was trying to say is that they need to get pucks through.”
Looking ahead, that last part is key for the Devils in this series: They do indeed need to get pucks through, and if the Rangers are in their heads, that needs to change. But DeBoer is right: The Rangers’ effective shot-blocking is just one of many keys to this series, even if it’s the one getting all the attention in advance of tonight’s Game 2.