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It's good if puck hits you

That is, if it stops a shot, which is a Lightning duty. What's not good is the pain.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2003


TAMPA -- Two weeks later, the welt on Cory Sarich's forearm still was raised more than an inch. The mutant bruise was his reward for putting his body in front of a rocketing puck.

How valiant.

How brave.

How ... utterly insane.

The puck, of course, found the 2 inches of flesh between the end of the Lightning defenseman's glove and the start of his elbow pad. Even Sarich is not too sure why the bone didn't crack.

"Drank lots of milk as a kid," he said, shrugging.

Blocking shots in hockey is commonly considered a task of goaltenders. But as the Lightning embarks on the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, it is every player's duty to limit the number of shots that make it through to Nikolai Khabibulin.

No matter how much it hurts.

"You do it to win a hockey game," Sarich said in a tone that implied the question, not the action, was ludicrous. "You're always trying to limit a team's shots at your goaltender. Any time you can block one, you're doing him a favor."

And yourself harm.

Apparently, it's worth it.

"We have a lot of bruises," defenseman Pavel Kubina said, "but it's part of the game."

Goaltenders, it would seem, are much better equipped for the job of blocking shots. They are the ones with the Michelin Man pads, the nice wide sticks and the full-faced masks, not to mention the bushel-basket glove on one hand. Why not leave the potentially debilitating task of halting frozen projectiles to them?

"If you plan to advance in a playoff series, you better have everybody blocking shots," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "That is one of the major details of playoff hockey and one of the biggest things that we did against Washington."

The precise number of shots Tampa Bay blocked in its 4-2 series win against the Capitals is uncertain, but it was somewhere between a million and a ton. Unofficially.

As of this season, the league does not share its statistics on blocked shots because they are too arbitrary and difficult to keep consistently from arena to arena. The players' union, however, requires teams to keep track because the selfless, injury-be-darned avocation is worth plenty at the arbitration table.

It's safe to say the Lightning blocked 15 to 20 shots in Sunday's series-clinching, triple-overtime victory. That would be in addition to the career-high 60 saves made by goaltender Khabibulin.

"We did block a lot of shots last series," captain Dave Andreychuk said. "I think it's just the desperation in the play. I wonder myself how come I block so many now and not in the regular season. For us, it's a key to our system. The way we play defense with everybody back into the middle of the ice, we are going to block a lot of shots."

Misleading substance, rubber.

The implication is something pliable, something that bends and flexes, like Gumby. Inner tubes. Baby buggy bumpers. Yeah, well, wad Gumby up into a 3-inch disc, put him in the freezer for a few hours and zing him at the inside of your arm.

Smarts, doesn't it?

Even at room temperature, nothing about a hockey puck is the least bit soft. Each weighs only a few ounces, but is rock-solid enough to double as cannon shot. There is no give whatsoever. In the form of a 100-mph slap shot, a puck would ding an armored truck.

Let alone an ankle.

"You just go down on the ice and pray that it hits you, but pray that it doesn't hit you hard," said defenseman Jassen Cullimore, grinning as much as a man can with 83 stitches in his lower lip and chin. "You want to get as much of your body in the way as you can. You sacrifice your body when you need to at this time of the year."

There are a variety of techniques. Some players stay square to the shooter, figuring the thickest parts of their pads are in the front. Others find it best to turn sideways, which blows the square-up theory. Forwards tend to slide a lot, trying to get their legs in front of a blue-line blast or force the shooter to miss the net. Turning your head is okay; closing your eyes is bad form.

Pain is a given.

"You're lucky when you get them off the bigger pieces of padding, your shin pads, thigh pads," Sarich said. "But I bet you 50 percent of the time, that puck is going to find its way through a crack. I've got bruises on my arms, even my legs."

Blocking a shot doesn't always hurt ... right away. Sarich recently took one on the outside of the knee that stung, but he was able to make a play before succumbing to a blinding pain that set in later.

"I was able to get up on a knee and clear the puck out," he said. "Then afterward I could hardly move my leg. But you suck it up, get to the bench and then you can do all the complaining you want."

Because even if no one else sees the bruises or appreciates the effort, teammates will. According to Tortorella, playoff hockey is about thankless jobs and making sacrifices.

"You know where the glory comes in? When you go in that locker room after the game, your teammates know what you have done," Tortorella said. "That little detail, blocking a shot, getting the puck out, taking a hit to make a play -- that's paying the price. Sometimes it's forgotten because a big goal was scored, but that's a mainstay in the locker room."

Nothing crazy about that.

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