London coach Mark Hunter leans on his top forwards to block shots. (OHL Images)SHAWINIGAN, Que. — The London Knights were expected to come in and play a tough defensive system against the free-wheeling teams from Edmonton, Saint John and Shawinigan. They've done just that, playing a style that the gentlest of observers would call not "aesthetically pleasing." The more critical would call it "boring."
It's effective. No one denies this. The Knights have made it to Sunday's final of the 2012 MasterCard Memorial Cup and will play against the Shawinigan Cataractes, largely because of their defensive stratagem: block shots, don't give up scoring chances, and make the simple plays to chip pucks out.
Consider this: through the round robin, the London Knights had allowed 38 scoring chances against their net in three games, or 24 at even strength. The next stingiest defensive team, the Saint John Sea Dogs, had allowed 49 and 36 respectively.
Typically, strong defensive play to that effect comes from restrictive play in the neutral zone. For the London Knights, it's shot blocking. While a tonne of shot blocks usually just indicates a team spent a lot of time playing in their own zone, that's not the same for London, who really pressure the point-men and don't let guys into the middle of the ice.
This is why, despite Michael's Houser's below average .885 save percentage, the Knights have still only allowed three goals per game. Shot blocks and smart plays. In the round robin, the Knights had blocked 59 opposition attempts. The next closest team was Shawinigan, who blocked 46.
"Sometimes we have to block shots and a lot of them are getting blocked penalty killing and you have to do that," said Hunter, who doesn't seem to be aware about giving up a puck possession. "At the end of the day, it's something to do as a team, and the players do it pretty well and they've bought into doing it and it's been successful."
His assessment does hold up with reality. Twenty-four of the Knights' blocks have come on special teams, almost all of which come from penalty killing. The next highest team had 14. A lot of this is thanks to the play of the centres, Austin Watson and Vladislav Namestnikov, who have faced their fair share of bumps and bruises.
"You don't want to play in your own end, but when you are there, you just gotta bear down and take care of your end," said Watson. "Obviously we want to play in the offensive zone but when the puck does come to our zone we want to do a good job of taking away scoring chances and getting it out."
He also said he isn't banged up too badly, that most pucks have hit him in the right places. But even if he was sporting a bruise, he wasn't going to tell anyone about it.
The technique that Hunter teaches them is to not dive on the ice and let a talented offensive defenceman such as Shawinigan's Brandon Gormley or Edmonton's Griffin Reinhart step around him. Watson said that it's all about "just getting down on one knee so you have the ability to get back up and move with the defence" and "sometimes you can calculate it, and sometimes you can just get in the way."
Hunter is a big fan of Watson. He has given him all of the tough minutes in this tournament: penalty-killing and playing him against top lines. Hunter has employed a five-man unit consisting of Watson, Matt and Ryan Rupert, Scott Harrington and Jarred Tinordi in those situations, but the responsibility falls on Watson to block the majority of the shots.
"He's always had that," said Hunter on the centreman who came over in a trade for Peterborough midseason. "It's the reason why he's going to play in the National Hockey League. He does all the intangibles: blocked shots, takes face-offs, gets pucks out, all them things that makes him a special player."
As for Namestnikov, he told a Russian interviewer about how former coach Dale Hunter would teach them to get in the shooting lanes. "He would tell us how you're supposed to throw your body to block the shot. Then he would shoot the pucks at us slightly," said Namestnikov (translation to @AOsadchenko). "That's how you practise it, it's really all in positioning yourself well. If you position yourself right, you black a lot of shots. Simple as that."
It may seem like an odd gambit, but you can't argue with success. Certain teams are praised for defensive work, but it's illusory because they've been playing in front of a hot goalie. Not London, not in this tournament. Their defensive success is genuine.