The season was only a few days old back on Oct. 7 when former Penguins’ defenseman Ian Cole dropped down to block a shot from Nashville’s Roman Josi.
Given the circumstances – the first period of a regular season game in October, Cole positioned far enough away from Josi to leave himself susceptible to catching a rising shot in a bad place – it was a decision that wouldn’t have even been considered by players 20 years ago.
Cole was successful, as the shot never reached goaltender Matt Murray. It caught Cole in the mouth, knocking out teeth and knocking him out of the lineup for three games. Looking back on it recently, Cole was philosophical about being a shot blocker.
“If you perfectly square up your body, you reduce your chances of being injured, but it’s hard to have your body in perfect position very often,” he said. “So, the puck is going to hit some bare skin now and again. When it does, it’s going to do some damage. It’s one of those things where it’s part of the game.”
Added (former) teammate Justin Schultz: “You have to do it in today’s game, and there’s a price you have to pay for it. You do whatever it takes to help your team win. It’s not fun and it takes a lot of courage.”
A Matter of Culture
The willingness to get in front of shots regardless of positioning, or simply to fill shooting lanes and take your chances, runs through every NHL roster these days.
It’s not just defensemen, either. We’ve seen Patric Hornqvist dive head-first in front of shots, and Tom Kuhnhackl and Carter Rowney are sometimes simply crazy to do what they do blocking shots on the penalty kill. But that’s where they understand their impact to the team is greatest, and where both have sustained injuries that knocked them out of the lineup.
Pens’ center Nick Bonino had a similar approach last season, leading all NHL forwards in blocks with 99. He was knocked out of the last four games of the Cup Final after breaking his leg blocking a P.K. Subban shot in Game 2 – an injury, incredibly, with which he returned to finish Game 2, even if he couldn’t play in the final four games of the year.
Hockey culture, understandably, celebrates this kind of courage. And the courage to continue offering to block shots when the old injuries heal.
Cole was third in the NHL in blocked shots last season with a franchise-record 194, and he’s averaging 1.9 blocks this season – down from 2.4 last season but still leading the team. He hasn’t changed his game given what happened four a half months ago.
“You’ve just got to do it,” says Olli Maatta. “I think we have some very good examples on our team of guys who are willing to block shots and do what it takes to keep teams from scoring. It’s just a huge part of the game nowadays.”
It wasn’t always this way, of course. The first full season that the NHL tracked blocked shots, 1998-99, only four teams finished with 1,000 or more blocks. Last season, every team but one had 1,000 or more blocks, with the Penguins establishing a team record with 1,307.
This trend has evolved at a time when goalies are more talented and capable of stopping more shots than ever before, and when stick technology and training regimens mean players are stronger and more capable of generating dangerous speed and power with their shots.
It’s a part of the game today that leaves the door open for almost any routine shot to change the fortunes of shot-blockers and their teams – especially in the upcoming playoffs, when expectations rise for every player to do their part getting in front of shots.
Interestingly, Cole believes the shot block is the absolute last tool he wants to use in a game where his job is to take away as many scoring chances as possible.
“I’ve said this many times: Blocked shots are great, but I think blocked shots to me are an act of desperation,” he said. “If we can shut down plays in the offensive zone on their breakout, if we can have great gaps and break up plays in the neutral zone, if we can have good sticks and break them up as they enter our zone, if we can deter them from getting to the net … There are so many times as the rush comes down the rink you can basically end the play early and not even get to the point where you can block a shot.
“That’s ideal for us; not to sit back, wait for them to come in and just tee off, and then try and block as many as you can. The earlier you can kill plays, the better off you are.”
And the healthier you are.
John Perrotto and Dan Kingerski contributed to this story.