Possession and shot blocking: the different playing styles of the NHL playoffs

By Adam Gretz | Hockey writer


Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby had an interesting comment following their overtime loss to the New York Rangers on Monday night.

“I didn't see a thing,” said Holtby when asked about Marc Staal's game-winning shot, via the Washington Post. “So, whether I had a lane or not I'd have to look at it on video to see if I could have done a better job seeing around the traffic. That's what happens when we play a style where we block a lot of shots; sometimes those go in.

(Emphasis mine.)

The Capitals and Rangers willingness to repeatedly throw themselves in front of shots this season (and in the playoffs) has received a great deal of attention and has been the single biggest talking point of their series. It's mostly been positive, praising them for their commitment and fearlessness to stand in front of countless shots and "take one for the team."

Larry Brooks of the New York Post, on the other hand, pretty much flew off the handle over the weekend and criticized the strategy for basically ruining hockey and removing the talent from the game. That's an extreme point of view, and that's not really what's happening here. The Rangers and Capitals are the only teams still playing that rely on shot blocking to that level, and they're the only ones that have had any sort of success with it in the NHL this season. And one of them is guaranteed to be eliminated in this round.

Teams like Los Angeles and New Jersey on the other hand, two of the most impressive teams in the postseason right now, were 29th and 30th in the NHL in blocked shots this season and have relied on a possession game to win. Phoenix, having just advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history with its five-game series win over Nashville, was just 21st in the NHL in shot blocking this season (though, the Coyotes possession game isn't quite as good as LA's or New Jersey's).

A month ago I argued that it probably doesn't really matter how many shots a team blocks and that the overall raw numbers are more misleading than anything else. In most cases, teams that pile up a lot of blocked shots are only doing so because two things are happening: 1) They don't have the puck, and 2) They can't get out of their own zone. And that's not a good combination. The New York Islanders lead the NHL in blocked shots every season, and it's not because they're a good defensive team. Perhaps a better way to look at shot-blocking isn't the total number but the percentage of attempted shots that get blocked (and the Capitals, and especially the Rangers, are still excellent in this area).

When a team spends extended shifts in its own zone and allows its opponents to cycle around and attempt 60 or so shots, a lot of bad things can happen. You could be more likely to take a penalty. Pucks can get deflected and take bad bounces. Or your own defenseman can unintentionally serve as a screen for your goalie and prevent him from having a clear view of the shot, as may have been the case on Monday night when Staal's overtime blast from the point beat Holtby. Even on Anton Stralman's bad angle goal that opened the scoring in the first period, Holtby's view appeared to be obstructed, at least on the video, by defenseman Dennis Wideman as he attempted to block the shot.

The point isn't that you should avoid trying to block a shot when you have an opportunity to do it. It's just that perhaps the better play is to make sure you're in a position where you don't have to block a shot. I'm not sure how easy it is to maintain success when you're spending that much time in your own zone defending.

I prefer a possession game and using a good offense as your best defense.

The Kings are constantly looked at as a defensive team due to their goals for and goals against numbers. But they have been one of the best possession teams in the NHL for most of the season and rarely have to spend time collapsing around their net and throwing themselves in front of shots. The Devils, a team that has become synonymous over the years with defense and clogging up the neutral zone, has been taking it to the Flyers this entire series with a relentless forecheck, and they have dominated the possession game.

It's a subject that goalie Martin Brodeur discussed with Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record prior to Tuesday's Game 5.

“The more we keep the puck in their zone, the more we're taking shots on them, the less they're going to have an opportunity against us," Brodeur said. "But when they do, we have a lot of good back pressure from our forwards just because we're working hard. We're gambling sometimes offensively, but we're coming back five guys together and putting a lot of pressure on them to make good plays to beat us, and it's been working out good.”

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