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Blocking shots in the NHL: ‘You close your eyes and pray’

Big road trip for Canes

Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour addresses the importance of an upcoming five-game road trip and whether the Canes can be playoff-caliber team after practice at PNC Arena on Feb. 4, 2019.
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Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour addresses the importance of an upcoming five-game road trip and whether the Canes can be playoff-caliber team after practice at PNC Arena on Feb. 4, 2019.

Brock McGinn was down on the ice, in pain. A lot of pain.

The Carolina Hurricanes forward had just blocked a shot by defenseman Shea Theodore of the Vegas Golden Knights on Friday, the puck catching McGinn near his left ankle. He struggled to get up, finally hobbling to the bench, grimacing as others around him patted him on the back.

Nearly everyone in the arena seemed to have their eyes on McGinn, as if somehow feeling part of his pain.

What does it feel like to block a shot in the National Hockey League?

“It’s a good hurt,” McGinn said Monday.

Come again? A good hurt?

“Blocking shots, I’ve always kind of liked to do it,” McGinn said.

Nearby, defenseman Calvin de Haan smiled. “Ginner’s a little crazy,” he said.

It’s a necessary part of being a hockey player, especially a role player like McGinn, who sees a lot of shorthanded time on the penalty kill. Defensemen block countless shots, with all parts of their bodies.

“You just close your eyes and brace yourself and hope you get hit in a good spot,” de Haan said. “It takes a big set of cojones to get in front of some of those pucks. Ginner’s pretty fearless and guys really rally around that kind of stuff.”

Man, does it hurt

McGinn was helping to protect a 4-2 lead against Vegas at PNC Arena. Theodore had both goals for the Golden Knights and was winding up for another big slap shot, looking to make it a one-goal game. McGinn lowered his left leg to the ice, putting himself in harm’s way, taking the full brunt of the shot.

Moments later, defenseman Justin Faulk flipped the loose puck nearly the length of the rink and into an empty net for a 5-2 lead. But McGinn was the one everyone first congratulated at the bench, including Faulk.

“It’s an important piece of a team,” McGinn said of shot-blocking. “When you see guys out there sacrificing and trying to block shots, I think that it shows the guys that you care and want to be there. It just sort of brings everybody in.”

But, man, does it hurt.

Frozen pucks

A hockey puck is a piece of vulcanized rubber that’s an inch thick, three inches in diameter and weighs about six ounces. The pucks are frozen before games, all the better for moving smoother and faster on the ice.

That’s all well and good until someone like, say, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals winds up for a 100 mph one-timer on that frozen black disk.

Canes defenseman Brett Pesce has been in that position before. And ...

“You thinking, ‘Don’t hit me,’” he said, laughing. “You close your eyes and pray it doesn’t hit you in the wrong spot and doesn’t break anything.”

Pesce leads the Canes with 86 blocks this season and de Haan and defenseman Jaccob Slavin each has 85. Faulk, who had a team-high six blocked shots in the Canes’ 4-0 road win Tuesday over the Pittsburgh Penguins, has 75. Carolina, as a team, has one of the lowest totals in the NHL. The Canes also allow the fewest shots against in the league.

An art form

It’s something of an art form, blocking shots, and something that has to be practiced, Pesce said, as unappealing as that might sound.

“There’s a lot of anticipation,” Pesce said. “You have to anticipate where the puck’s going and when and where it’s going off the stick. It’s like any other read in hockey, reading where the puck’s going to go.”

Pesce said in his first year in the NHL, he caught a shot off his ankle and suffered a fracture. He tried to play through the pain but finally had to shut it down for a while. But nearly all blocked shots hurt, he said.

“It always leaves a mark on your body,” he said. “It takes a special someone to get in front of an 80 or 90 mile per hour shot. But you do it for your team. It can really get the boys going.”

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In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.

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