- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2011

Take nothing away from Michal Neuvirth, who shined in his Stanley Cup playoff debut against the Rangers in Game 1. But his Capitals teammates kept more than half of New York’s shots from reaching him.

A big part of why the Caps have a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series is their commitment to blocking shots. They blocked 32 in the 2-1 overtime win against the Rangers - just part of the defensive system that has keyed their turnaround.

“If you’re getting good positioning in the defensive zone, I think a lot of shots will hit you and you have to sacrifice the body,” defenseman Scott Hannan said.

Several weeks ago, coach Bruce Boudreau marveled at how it was “unheard of” that his team blocked 26 shots in a regular-season game against Carolina. But now in the playoffs, where each victory continues a tally toward 16 and the Cup, getting more than 30 shows just how ready the Caps are to play this tight-checking, low-scoring style.

“That’s playoff hockey - you got to get your body in the way and limit their opportunities,” forward Matt Bradley said. “I thought we did a great job of that.”

It’s perfect against the Rangers, too. In fact, much of the conversation coming into the series was about New York’s shot-blocking ability. So naturally the Caps game-planned for this - as much as you can game-plan for players throwing their bodies in front of rubber projectiles flying at 90 mph.

“You’re trying to shoot around guys,” Hannan said. “Usually when teams are loading up five guys in front and you’re taking shots, you want to make sure you shoot the puck hard when you have a chance so you’re not throwing wristers at the net. Those are a lot easier to block as defensemen.”

Boudreau said it’s simple - “Shoot it where they ain’t. Yogi Berra said something like that.” But the Caps coach made sure to note that while the Rangers finished the regular season fourth in blocked shots, Washington was seventh.

However, the two teams’ styles are drastically different. Whereas John Tortorella’s Rangers dive out in front of pucks like they’re bodyguards for goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, the Caps happen to be in the right place at the right time.

“It’s one of those days where pucks are hitting you, and you just always try to get yourself in front of guys,” said defenseman Karl Alzner, who blocked eight in Game 1. “Guys are just throwing pucks on net and hoping for a good bounce. You just try and get in the way.”

That is a product of good positioning, as Hannan has pointed out. But getting in front of shots and limiting opportunities isn’t a novel concept with the Caps or Rangers. It’s just something that becomes a bit more prevalent this time of year.

“Shot-blocking has become a part of hockey. And if you don’t do it, you’re not gonna be successful,” Boudreau said. “You look at all the best defensive teams in the league and their defense and forwards are committed to blocking shots. I don’t think we’re any different, and I think it gets ramped up in the playoffs more where every team sacrifices even more.”

And while the 32 blocked shots were the most in the playoffs during Boudreau’s tenure, the Caps are in playoff mode. That means not taking shot-blocking or anything else for granted the rest of the series.

“I think there’s always room for improvement,” forward Matt Hendricks said, “and I’m sure we’re gonna work on that as well.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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