- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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Rangers coach John Tortorella is usually about as friendly as a snapping turtle during his news conferences. Can't stand 'em, can't use 'em, always behaves as if he has 15 million better things to do.
So it was telling -- even a little disappointing Tuesday -- when Tortorella couldn't even be bothered to muster some sincere outrage when asked about the snowballing debate about whether the shot-blocking defense the Rangers throw out night after night is "ruining" hockey, the same thing the New Jersey Devils -- the Rangers' opponent in the Eastern Conference finals -- were accused of a decade ago because of another defensive tactic that was even more loathed than the Rangers' love of hurling themselves in front of shots.
To this day, if you mention the Devils' old "neutral zone trap" to some hockey insiders, they look like they want to slap you. It's as if a more vile, entertainment-suffocating tactic had never been created.
"Oh, I'm not getting into any of that stuff," Tortorella said with a half-hearted wave of his hand, looking -- could this be? -- like he was too bored to argue.
And he's right. Why bother?
Shot-blocking isn't getting banned in the NHL any time soon. Nor should it. And Tortorella knows it. There's a reason that the Rangers, like Los Angeles and Phoenix, the two teams facing off right now in the Western Conference finals, have all made shot-blocking a huge part of their defensive strategy: It works.
"I'm not sure if it's good for the game," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett told reporters the other day. "But it's good for winning."
Tortorella has his players believing that, as unpopular as the Devils' trap was, the Devils did ride it to three Stanley Cup victories by the time the trap was legislated out of the game. He also knows the NHL isn't going to call a special Board of Governors meeting to stop the Rangers from continuing to be the best shot-blocking team left in the playoffs between now and Game 2 on Wednesday, or the final round of the playoffs.
Nor should the NHL do anything.
There are still very few things in sports more selfless or dangerous that seeing a hockey player willingly throw himself in front of a puck that may come whistling off an opponent's stick at 80, 90, even 100 mph. But one argument that's being advanced to run down shot-blocking now -- this contention that there's no real valor in shot-blocking anymore because the better protective gear the players wear reduces the courage or pain threshold needed -- is different than what the players and goaltenders themselves report.
"It's just a reaction," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said Tuesday. "You're not really thinking, 'What's the consequence if I step in front of this shot?' "
"Yeah, you got protection, but [getting hit] is still going to sting," Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh added.
And it's hard to accuse them of lying when you see them tottering off, jackknifed in pain, or missing games for long stretches at a time, like Callahan has each of the last two seasons. Earlier this season, Philadelphia netminder Ilya Bryzgalov has called shotblocking without goaltending gear "crazy."
"It absolutely hurts," said Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman, laughing. "And I disagree that it destroys the game. I think it adds excitement. It helps the team. The crowds get into it. It's become a big part of the game, but it's always been a part of the game. And I don't know what you can do to prevent it."
Nothing that's been mentioned so far is worth doing.
Four years ago, Bob Gainey, then Montreal's general manager, suggested the league pass a rule that a player had to keep at least one skate blade on the ice to legally block a shot, or risk a two-minute penalty. Former NHL coach and general manager Pierre Page suggested a variation of basketball's three-in-the-key violation that would limit forwards from packing themselves too far back toward the goalmouth than they do now.
Thankfully, both ideas were nonstarters. Both cures seemed worse than the so-called problem. Page's solution conjures up images of old-time 6-on-6 basketball in which not all the players got to even cross midcourt. Why go that far? Why not let inherent risk of injury that comes with shot-blocking be deterrent enough?
Besides, there's nothing close to a consensus yet that shot-blocking poses the same level of problem for NHL offenses that the Devils' trap defense once did. The Rangers blocked 26 Devils shot attempts alone during their 3-0 Game 1 win on Monday. And yet, portions of Monday's game were still appreciably more wide open than most of the seven-game series the Rangers just played against the Washington Capitals (who are even more prolific at blocking shots).
It's undeniable that shot-blocking has become an every-game, Everyman thing during the regular season, not just the playoffs. Eighteen teams blocked more than 1,100 shots this past season because -- as Tippett said -- it works. But if it were up to the blood-and-guts wing of the NHL, which has always resisted any measures that prettify the game more than it is, they wouldn't outlaw shot blocking to reduce what's now being called "goalmouth gridlock"; they'd say the crowded real estate in the crease is nothing that couldn't be cured if you just allowed defensemen to start crosschecking people out of the way again, then throw in a good facewash while they're at it.
Just last week, Tortorella said if it were up to him, he'd do away with the pro-offense rule that now allows a two-line pass too.
"You have to play defense to win," says Tortorella. "Blocking shots is defense."
So get over it.
Shot-blocking isn't -- and shouldn't be -- going anywhere. Not any time soon.
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