It has been more than a week now since the Flyers were eliminated by the New Jersey Devils. Somewhere, coach Peter Laviolette and his staff, along with general manager Paul Holmgren, are going about the annual ritual of assessment and reassessment after you lose -- what went right, what went wrong, what needs to be fixed, what needs to be tweaked. It happens every spring -- and in the Flyers’ case, 37 springs and counting.
Their analysis does not take place in a vacuum. Teams are still playing. There is a game every night on television, and there is a narrative that is being sold and told and re-told. It is about blocked shots. The New York Rangers are the leading practitioner of the art, and they are in the conference final -- tied at one game apiece with the Devils.
Compared to 5 years ago, playoff shot-blocking is up about 10 percent. That is a real number. The Rangers already have blocked 309 shots in 16 playoff games. The Washington Capitals blocked 308 shots in 14 games. The leader in the 2006-07 playoffs was Ottawa, which blocked 310 shots in 20 games. So, yes, this is happening.
Some of it is better equipment, which makes players more fearless. More of it is tactical. The NHL, like all pro sports, is full of copycats -- and if the Rangers were to win the Stanley Cup, the notion of shot-blocking-as-secret-formula would be debated in every one of the league’s outposts.
The short answer, for Holmgren and Laviolette, is to resist the conversation.
The formula, for the Flyers, is to giddy-up and go.
That is not to say that shot-blocking is meaningless. There are times when it matters a lot, such as the night of Game 6 in the first round when the Flyers did, in fact, build a wall in front of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov and eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins. In general, though, it is not the metric that matters the most for a team that is best when it is skating aggressively and asking questions later.
True Fact I: The Flyers blocked more shots than the Penguins did in the first round (116-81) and won the series in six games.
True Fact II: The Flyers blocked more shots than the Devils did in the second round (77-65) and lost the series in five games.
Against the Devils, the Flyers were out-blocked -- is that even a term? -- in Game 1 and won anyway. Then they out-blocked the Devils in Games 2, 3 and 4 and lost each time.
Shot-blocking is not the reason the Flyers are currently spectating instead of playing. They had plenty of blocked shots. What they didn’t have enough of against the Devils was shots.
It wasn’t shot-blocking. It wasn’t the goaltender. It was the Flyers’ inability to sustain a forecheck and to prevent the Devils from sustaining theirs. It was about an imbalance in time of possession in the offensive zone. It was about not getting enough shots against a 40-year-old goaltender who looked gettable at many points during the series.
If you want to argue that the young-and-overconfident Flyers took a big punch from the Devils in Game 2 of the series and never recovered, there is plenty of evidence to support that theory. If you want to say that the obviously-injured defensemen, Kimmo Timonen and Nicklas Grossman, were not at the top of their games, it is a fair comment.
None of that is about shot-blocking, though. None of that is about style of play. The truth is that the Flyers won games when they skated and possessed the puck and they lost games when they didn’t. In the five games against the Devils, when you compare total shot attempts -- shots, blocked shots and missed shots -- and use that as a proxy for effective possession of the puck, this is what you come up with:
The team with the most shot attempts won every game. The Flyers’ advantage in Game 1 was 71-47 and they looked great after a slow first period. Their deficit in Game 2 was 70-37 and they looked godawful. In Game 3, the Devils won in overtime and had the 59-46 advantage. Game 4, it was 64-33 and more lopsided. In Game 5, a much more competitive game, the Devils led by 60-55.
The Flyers do not need to re-make themselves. They need to learn to sustain their effort, and to hope for (or acquire) healthier defensemen. And for the sake of everyone who likes the game, and who likes speed, and who likes offense, they need to remain the kind of team that values skating most of all.
Nobody ever fell in love with a blocked shot, after all.