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Nashville Predators center Colin Wilson, right, gets set to try to block a shot by Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Sopel (5) in the first period of a first-round NHL Western Conference hockey playoff game on Tuesday, April 20, 2010, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
Nashville Predators center Colin Wilson, right, gets set to try to block a shot by Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Sopel (5) in the first period of a first-round NHL Western Conference hockey playoff game on Tuesday, April 20, 2010, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Gary Mason

The art of blocking a shot Add to ...

It was John Madden’s father who first encouraged him to start blocking shots. This was when the Blackhawks forward was still in minor hockey. If you could find the courage to stand in front of a defenceman’s blast from the point, his dad told him, you might get a few lucky bounces that lead to breakaways.

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“And he was right,” Mr. Madden said in the Chicago dressing room Thursday. “So I can blame him for looking the way I do today.”

The scars that frame Mr. Madden’s left eye bear testament to the often precarious proposition that is shot-blocking. Any player will tell you it is one of the most joyless parts of the game. But without the fearless players who throw their bodies in front of pucks going 160 kilometres per hour, you don’t win – especially in the playoffs.

Any analysis of Montreal’s stunning upset of the Washington Capitals has centred around a couple of things: unbelievable goaltending and team shot-blocking. The Canadiens led all playoff teams in this category in round one. According to NHL statistics, Montreal blocked 182 shots. The next closest was Ottawa at 129.

The Canadiens aren’t expected to change that strategy in their upcoming series against the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. And it will be a key component in the matchup between the Hawks and the Vancouver Canucks that begins here Saturday.

“It’s not a glamorous part of the game,” said Mr. Madden, who helped the New Jersey Devils win two Stanley Cups with his shot-blocking prowess. “But it’s so key. And there is a real art form to it – although it sometimes doesn’t look that way.”

Yes, there is often a method to a shot-blocker’s madness, although not everyone’s technique is the same.

Some players, mostly forwards trying to block a shot from the point, slide in front of the shot so the puck hits their pads. Mr. Madden says this move is often borne out of desperation. The key, as it is for all shot-blocking, is timing. You need to go down almost at the same time as the puck is leaving the shooter’s stick. And, of course, you have to make sure your face isn’t in the pathway of the puck.

Once you go down, however, you are vulnerable if the shooter fakes and moves to another position to take his blast. That is why timing is everything.

During a power play, natural shooting lanes develop. A veteran player such as Mr. Madden knows that these lanes shift and move around. It’s his job to read where those lanes are apt to be created and move there in time to get in front of any shot coming from the point.

Mr. Madden prefers to face the shooter square, much like a goalie. He doesn’t leave his feet this way, so if the shooter fakes his shot, Mr. Madden is still in a position to move with the shooter as he gets in position to take the shot somewhere else.

“You have a lot of padding on you so if you’re square it increases the chances the puck will hit you somewhere where you’re covered,” Mr. Madden said. “But even when it does it can still hurt like hell. If it hits you in the face, it’s another story.”

Mr. Madden has been hit in the face twice, most recently a few years ago when he squared up to block a shot from the point by Tampa sniper Martin St. Louis. The puck wasn’t flat on the ice when Mr. St. Louis shot it. It went straight up into the face of Mr. Madden, who was standing 15 feet away, smashing his orbital bone.

“I didn’t have a chance,” he said. “I was out for a while and I’ll tell you, the hardest part after that is getting back on that horse the next time. Not fun.”

While technique is important, Mr. Madden says, it’s not the most vital ingredient in a shot-blocker’s arsenal.

“Let’s face it,” he said. “The most crucial thing you need is a big bag of knuckles, if I can steal a line out of Mystery, Alaska. Without it, well, you don’t do it.”

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