SUNRISE — The face, right? You’ve got to protect the face first.
And then it’s easily breakable bones. The forearm, the knees, even the feet.
Really, when it comes to blocking a frozen hockey puck whizzing at you at breakneck speed — and that’s not necessarily a euphemism — it’s best to go into turtle mode and pray it hits a protected body part.
“For sure, there’s a technique to it. I was taught to time up the shot and turn your head,” said Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “Hopefully, it hits padding, whether it’s an elbow pad or shin guard. Obviously, the pants have a lot of bulk and padding. You appreciate it on those shots.”
Trust me, McDonagh knows. Since the NHL began tracking this sort of thing more than 15 years ago, there’s not a player alive who has blocked more shots during the Stanley Cup playoffs than McDonagh.
He led the Lightning with four blocked shots in Tuesday night’s Game 1 victory against Florida, giving him 386 in his postseason career to move past former Lightning teammate Dan Girardi.
“He brings it every single night, on the (penalty kill) especially, just putting his face in front of every puck. The bruises on his body … it’s just remarkable,” forward Pat Maroon said. “His compete level and his sacrifice for the boys to lay it all out there, especially when there’s a 105 mph slap shot and he’s willing to eat the puck.”
Beyond individual moments, McDonagh has established a standard among Tampa Bay’s defensemen. An ethos, if you will. You’re not going to put your body at risk for every shot that passes your way during an 82-game regular season, but there are moments when it is essential to take one for the team.
And McDonagh has walked that walk. Oftentimes, with a limp.
“He’s always been completely selfless,” said Lightning assistant coach Rob Zettler. “He’s one of the senior guys on our team, and he’s shown the (Mikhail) Sergachevs and the (Erik) Cernaks the commitment it takes to win in this league. You can talk about it as coaches, you can talk about it all you want, but you (need to) see someone doing it, and know it and feel it and know what it’s like to do it.
“That’s a big deal. When you see a guy of Ryan’s stature doing it, who has been in the league a long time and just continues to do it, why wouldn’t you?”
Case in point:
Holding a 1-0 lead midway through the second period Tuesday, the Panthers went on a power play. Fifteen seconds later, Jonathan Huberdeau launched Florida’s first shot and it was blocked by Anthony Cirelli. Less than a minute later, Huberdeau had another shot blocked by Sergachev.
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped the next three shots, but Florida’s best chance at breaking the game open came with 6:20 remaining in the period. The Lightning were overloaded on the left side of the net when a pass was sent across the ice to Brandon Montour, who was all alone in the faceoff circle.
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While Vasilevskiy scrambled vainly to get in position, Cernak skated between Montour and the net and then sprawled on the ice just as the slap shot arrived to hit him — apparently — in the back.
Cernak lay facedown on the ice for several seconds before skating toward the bench and disappearing into the locker room for the rest of the game. (He skated during Wednesday’s practice and is expected to be available for Game 2 on Thursday night.)
A moment like this is often noted by broadcasters but is forgotten by the time a box score is published. For defensemen, however, that type of block is every bit as important as a game-tying score.
And less than three minutes after the Cernak block, the Lightning tied the game when Nikita Kucherov fed Corey Perry on a rush.
“That was a huge, huge turning point, getting through that (penalty) kill without getting hurt on the scoreboard,” McDonagh said. “And (Cernak) felt that one, for sure. He’s one of the best at that, when it comes to commitment and willingness and technique.”
Cernak’s sacrifice was, in a way, a compliment to McDonagh’s influence. Cernak made his NHL debut three months before McDonagh was acquired in a trade, and they spent several years together as linemates. Cernak averaged 0.69 blocks per 60 minutes in his first NHL postseason in 2019 but has averaged 4.8 ever since.
“Does it get contagious? It does. Because, you know, God forbid you watch a guy do it and then you have a chance to do it,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Guys get in line in that regard. And that’s been the history with us for a number of years now. It’s kind of built into our culture.
“Yeah, it’s tough to come to the bench if you passed up (a chance) to do that.”
Staff writer Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this report.
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