Hockey: Blocking shots pays dividends for Tri-City Americans

November 21, 2013 

Marcus Messier lost his stick for the better part of a shift against the Vancouver Giants on Tuesday. No big deal for the Tri-City Americans forward, who instead used his body to block pucks.

It was just another day at the rink for Messier, who as a key player on the Americans’ penalty kill, takes a beating every game. “I think everyone has it in them. Everyone is going to have to do it at some point,” Messier said of blocking shots. “Being in the position as a penalty killer, in that situation you have to do it a lot more often because they want to get pucks to the net and you gotta try and limit that as much as possible.

“You gotta be nuts. A shoutout to all the PKers. They block a lot of shots and suck up the bruises. It’s part of the game.” Tri-City (14-10-0-2), which has won six in a row on home ice, has the third-best penalty kill unit in the Western Hockey League heading into tonight’s home game against the B.C. Division-leading Kelowna Rockets, who have the league’s top-ranked penalty kill.

The Rockets (16-3-0-2), who average four goals per game, also are stingy on defense, allowing just 2.5 goals per game. “They are a really good team,” said Americans defenseman Justin Hamonic, who also is one of the team’s premier shot blockers. “They are going to shoot a lot and we have to help our goalie as much as possible keeping pucks away from the net. It’s huge for us to have success against them.”

Messier, who still was smarting from a puck to the inner thigh on Thursday, is one of a handful of Tri-City players who lay their bodies in front of pucks every game.

In the end, one blocked puck — or not — can mean the difference between winning and losing.

“I think it is really important, not just to the game generally, but for our team,” said Americans assistant coach Dan Price. “It helps us build momentum. In the game where we get big shot blocks, the team seems to feed off that. Players are playing for each other, they care about each other and they want to make sure the puck stays out of our net. They do that for each other and for the goalies. It’s a sense of pride.”

Blocking shots is vital to the game, and learning to do it right is just as important.

“It’s kind of a tough thing,” Messier said. “When you go down, you aren’t sure where the puck is going to hit you. You just have to make sure you are in the lane and hope it hits somewhere with padding.”

Then there are the little things.

“You don’t try and whack at the puck with your stick to try and tip it,” Messier said. “That makes it harder on (goaltender) Eric (Comrie). You are trying to block the whole shot, not a deflection. You don’t turn your back, and you cover your face. That would never feel good.”

Comrie appreciates the sacrifice Messier puts forth every game.

“He’s an unbelievable shot blocker,” Comrie said. “After every game he’s got an ice pack on just about every part of his body because he’s just about blocked everything. As a goalie you know how much sacrifice that takes. Not wearing much gear, a lot of exposed skin. When that puck hits you it hurts. It’s so great to see he does that no matter what. He is such a team player and a leader. He goes out there every night and does that.”

In a game, players have to make split-second decisions and rely on their instincts. Price said timing and positioning are important. “It’s a bit of a game of cat and mouse with the shooter,” Price said. “You have to make sure you are in the shooting lane but that you also aren’t committing too early. They can be deceptive and walk around you, creating an odd man situation behind you at your net front.”

Whereas Messier goes down to block a lot of shots playing point on the penalty kill, Hamonic tends to block more pucks in the upright position, taking them in the shin pads and off the skates.

“Up front, forwards have to take out the lanes,” Hamonic said. “It’s more out of desperation, where I can read the puck, and see where it is going. I try to stay on my feet so I can make a play after I block the shot. Depending on how many pucks you block, there’s one or two bruises. For me personally, it’s one of the things I like to do. It gives the bench energy seeing guys dive in front of pucks. It’s contagious. It’s something we take pride in.”

Messier and Hamonic lead the shot blocking brigade, but guys like Phil Tot, Mitch Topping, Beau McCue, Lucas Nickles and others are right in the thick of things.

“They go out every night and block shots and never think twice,” Comrie said. “I have the utmost appreciation for them.”

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