SUN Hockey Pool

That's gotta hurt

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:15 AM ET

It's simple, really. All you have to do is throw your body in front of a slapshot.

When you see a 220-pound defenceman wind up his scientifically engineered carbon fibre stick, you dive in front of the frozen puck like a secret service agent taking one for the president.

Why? So your goalie, you know, the guy with all the padding, is spared the hassle.

It's not a lot of fun, and it doesn't show up in the morning summaries, but shot blocking has become a crucial part in any team's success - especially in an era when so much of the game is crowding the front of the net and ripping point shots at the screened goalie.

"We all know how important it is to stop the defencemen from getting pucks to the net, but it can be a double-edged sword in terms of dealing with the injuries,'' said head coach Craig MacTavish, who's had a number of players hobbled by pucks this year. "The danger is there; we just try and encourage proper technique so you can get your shin pads to take the brunt of it.''

It sounds simple enough, but shot blocking is as difficult as it is dangerous. Time it wrong and you either screen your own goalie or you get hurt. Time it right and it hurts anyway.

"Hopefully you're in the right position and you get yourself into the right spot so you take it off the pads,'' said defenceman Jason Smith, back in the lineup after missing four games with a broken toe. "But there are instances where the puck bounces or the shooter hesitates and you get hit in a bad spot.''

The Oilers are among the league leaders in blocked shots, so it's no coincidence they're among the league leaders in bruises.

"We try and teach it as best we can using the foam pucks, but it can be pretty intimidating when you leave your feet for the first time,'' said MacTavish. "You have to judge your lateral speed so your face isn't passing the shooting lane. If your face is passing the shooting lane, then you're employing Kelly Buchberger's technique.''

They joke about it, but they all understand the risk and importance of sacrificing one's self for the team.

"It's tough, things can vary a lot,'' said Marty Reasoner, who went to the emergency ward, coughing blood from a bruised lung, after being hit in the chest before the Olympic break. "You're trying to get in someone else's head and guess when they're going to shoot it, and sometimes you're not on the same wavelength - he's going one way and you're going the other.

"I got caught in a bad situation where I thought he was going to pull the puck to the middle a little more, and he didn't. I had already gone down and was in a vulnerable spot. I was like a deer in the headlights, there was nowhere for me to go. He put it right into me.''

If the blast does get through to the net, then the area in front of the crease becomes a danger zone as 100-mph slappers go whizzing by your ankles and under your chin.

"It's only a safe game in the stands and behind the bench,'' said MacTavish. "On the ice it's a dangerous game and we all know that. You go into the game knowing that bad things can happen.''

With sticks that generate more velocity and skates that offer less protection, more and more players are limping to the bench than ever before.

"New skates are so much lighter for comfort and speed, and guys are shooting the puck so much harder,'' said Smith. "Sometimes something has to give.''

Like the foot bone. Or worse.

"It can be tough getting out of the way when you're standing in front of the net,'' said Reasoner.

Diving out to block a shot, or standing your ground in front of the net is scary enough, try doing it after your bones are barely healed from the last time.

"Everybody in our room is comfortable getting in front of the puck,'' said Smith. "Seeing somebody get hurt like (Reasoner), or like when Luke Richardson got hit in the face earlier this year makes you wince, but all you can do is hope that it doesn't happen to you.''

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T'S TOP FIVE

Top five excuses for Canadian and U.S. hockey players staying at home the next time the Winter Olympics are held overseas:

5 - I lost my shirt on the Super Bowl, and I don't want to be a distraction to the team.

4 - The dog ate my passport.

3 - I'd love to play, but I started losing my hair, then I called Jose Theodore ...

2 - Sorry, but I'm not taking part in any competition that includes two-man luge.

1 - Does this groin look inflamed to you?

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T'S TEAM OF THE WEEK

C - CHRIS GRATTON (PANTHERS): Blanked last game, but 12 points in six games before that.

LW - JOHN LECLAIR, (PENGUINS): Three goals and four assists in his last seven, for Pittsburgh yet.

RW - LEE STEMPNIAK (BLUES): Rookie has notched a point in eight of his last nine games.

LD - LUBOMIR VISNOSKY (KINGS): Plus four in his last two games, six points in his last three.

RD - ANDREJ MASZAROS (SENATORS): Comes back from the Olympics to post three assists against Washington

G - CHRISTOBAL HUET (CANADIENS): Given Habs all they can ask for in relief of Theodore. And his hair is real.

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T'S QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"I thought, 'This must be how the Ottawa Senators feel every night.' ''

-- Martin Gelinas, after the lowly Panthers scored eight times against Tampa.


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