Throughout the playoffs and especially after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final yesterday, the talk of the league is the Rangers' incredible shot-blocking system. Last night, the Devils took 47 shots on net but only 21 reached Henrik Lundqvist with Ranger forwards and defensemen blocking the other 26. During their first fifteen games of the playoffs, the Rangers averaged nearly twenty blocked shots a game. Sore loser Devil fans and other people who worry about the effect this system will have on the league in the next few years are feverishly wondering if there is some way to curtail what many (including me) dub as the 'six-goalie system'. There's already a rumor going around that the NHL wants to outlaw leaving your skates to block a shot.
I can't begin to count the number of ways how ludicrous this nonsense is.
First of all, blocking a shot is a good, solid hockey play that's been around a hundred years. Few have turned into an artform like the Rangers have this year though, not only do they block shots with abandon but they somehow manage to avoid putting themselves in harm's way doing it. Legislating against shot-blocking just because it hurts offense is just as silly as implementing the trapezoid to help offense by preventing goalies like Martin Brodeur from playing the puck. Besides, it's not as if blocking a shot is a foolproof play. If done incorrectly, pucks can deflect off you and past your goalie, pucks can hit you in the wrong spot and injure you, and you can take yourself out of position if the shooter makes a patient play and fakes a shot.
Already after Game 1, the Devils seemed preoccupied and frustrated with the Rangers' system, with captain Zach Parise saying succinctly, “I feel like everyone is obsessed with this shot blocking because that’s what they’re doing...a lot of teams block shots. We’ve just got to get it around.” Well yeah, people are obsessed about it because the Rangers are winning games with it, with a team that wasn't expected to do anything before the season. To a degree, they're a Cinderella masquerading as a top seed.
Brodeur was even more direct afterward:
“We’re playing a different team defensively than maybe the Flyers,” Brodeur said. “I think they’re a lot more in our shooting lanes for our (defensemen), so we’ve just got to find ways to try to expose them a little more. We’ve done it in the regular season. We’ve got to try to get it done. Right now, they’re hot. They’re blocking pucks. Hopefully we’ll be able to hurt a few guys hitting one-timers off their foot and their head or something. Right now, they’re paying the price to win and that’s what playoff hockey is all about.”
I got into a bunch of arguments with Devil fans last night over on the HF message board, apparently it's okay to wish injury because that's the way they did it in the olden days, with Bobby Hull aiming at goalies' heads in the days where they didn't wear masks. Well not everything about the good old days was good, it's one thing to not care if someone gets hurt because they're blocking a shot but actively hoping to take out a few players isn't too far off from what the NFL's Saints did with Bountygate. If you can't win with talent and wearing down the opposition by skill, legal hockey hitting and attrition, then what's the point? I wouldn't have even cared if Marty had left the head out of it, but you can't go bringing up head injuries in this climate, you just can't.
In the interest of full disclosure, I find it amusing on the one hand (and an annoying double-standard on the other) that the Devils got killed for years having a counterattacking defensive system where they were able to play in all three zones of the ice as being boring and killing the game when they were one of the highest scoring teams in the league, but now when the Rangers put together a system that basically involves being in their own zone 75% of the time and employing a Ali-like rope-a-dope, somehow that isn't boring. Honest to god, a couple of these Ranger games this year have been among the most boring beyond belief games I've ever seen. While the Devils forced mistakes with the neutral zone trap, the Rangers just sit back and wait for mistakes to happen. I'm not saying they shouldn't get credit for what they do, I've been giving them more credit than most this year - but god, let's call a spade a spade. What the Rangers do is akin to a team in one of the big foreign soccer leagues playing for 0-0 draws, only it's easier in hockey to take advantage of mistakes and counterattack, so a 0-0 game turns into 1-0, and that changes everything like last night.
So what, if anything should be done about an extreme shot-blocking system? I say let the coaches have a crack at working it out...leagues go through ebbs and flows all the time of being more offensive, then more defensive. The worst thing the NHL can do is enact nine million changes that really aren't needed. Coaches will figure out a way to adjust and beat the system over time. Either that, or they'll imitate it en masse and then you can talk to me about changing the game when fifteen or twenty teams are playing 2-1 games in their own end. For now though, it seems unfair to legislate against a team just because they do something extremely well - but it's not exactly unprecedented. Once upon a time, if you took a penalty for two minutes you stayed in the box for two minutes even if the other team scored, like a five-minute major these days. However, the offensive prowess of the Canadiens and early '80's Oilers prompted the change to the current rule where a penalty ends once a goal is scored.
For now, all the Devils can do is quit whining and figure out a way to beat the system. You want to stop the system from spreading? Score goals and make good hockey plays.