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Capitals, Rangers and their shot-blocking: Troubling sign for the NHL playoffs?

Harrison Mooney
Puck Daddy

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AP

Through the first four games of their Eastern Conference semifinal, the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers have combined for 182 blocked shots.

If you're one of the many living in ever-present fear that the Dead Puck Era has just been laying dormant in the waters of the deep, waiting to rise once more like the phoenix (perhaps in Phoenix), watching scoring chances die on players' ribs and shinpads with regularity in this series has to alarm.

On Monday, Larry Brooks likened this strategic emphasis on sacrificing the body to the trap, that most evil of evils. From the New York Post:

The Rangers and Capitals will play a pivotal Game 5 tonight at Madison Square Garden in an eastern semifinal matchup that might otherwise be known as the Blocked Shot Series. Next to nothing gets through on either side, with both sides committed to doing whatever is necessary to prevent the puck from reaching the goaltender and in that way minimize scoring chances.

[...] The increase in blocked shots around hockey does not equate to an increase in commitment toward winning the Stanley Cup. It's just the latest strategy devised to negate talent, like the trap before the lockout that everyone hated with a passion.

Shot-blocking is indeed on the rise in the NHL, at least in the postseason. The total number of playoff blocked shots has risen every year since 2006-07, when the 16 teams combined for 1,140. In 2010-11, they combined for 1,522.

But 2005-06, the first year after the lockout, bucks that trend.

There were 1,305 total blocked shots that postseason, more than any of the three playoffs that followed.

Exactly 838 of those 1,305 came from the Carolina Hurricanes and the Edmonton Oilers, who blocked 420 and 418, respectively, and met in the Stanley Cup Final. These remain the two highest team totals for blocked shots in the postseason since the lockout.

Even though the Oilers and Hurricanes had success with this approach, they didn't convince anybody that this was the way to go. The following three postseasons saw a massive regression in shot blocks, as skilled teams like the Detroit Red Wings, who don't need to block many shots since the puck isn't in their end all that often, got through the grinding teams.

But now the Capitals and Rangers are taking us back. Like the Hurricanes and Oilers of six years ago, they're blocking shots at an unprecedented level. Through 11 playoff games, Washington and New York have gotten in front of 244 and 232 shots, respectively, just over 22 and 21 a game.

(Sure, these stats are juked, Baltimore Police-style, by the 81 they blocked in Game 3, but it's worth noting that Game 3 was effectively the length of two games, so it would make sense that they block about twice what they average.)

To put this into perspective, only one other team has ever averaged 21 blocked shots per game in the playoffs: the 2009-10 Montreal Canadiens, the only group of skaters to let 400 postseason shots hit them without seeing the Final.

No doubt the 2009-10 Montreal Canadiens aren't a team to emulate (because their success isn't repeatable, as their following two seasons proved). In the Canadiens' case, they blocked a lot of shots because the play was in their end most of the time. The Rangers and Capitals are just great at it.

In short, it's not worth wringing your hands over what the Capitals and Rangers are doing because, like the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, you're not watching the future of hockey. You're just watching two excellent shot-blocking teams go head to head.

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