By Bruce Berlet

Anticipation. Instincts. Timing. Guts.

CT WhaleIn some ways, blocking shots in hockey is even more dangerous than goaltending. Neither is for the faint of heart, but at least a goalie has plenty of padding and a facemask.

But a willingness to sacrifice your body for your goalie and your team can earn a player a lot of Brownie points, especially at playoff time.

Connecticut Whale defenseman Pavel Valentenko parlayed all those qualities into a personal first/best in Game 3 of the Atlantic Division semifinals against the Portland Pirates. With his team already two games down in the best-of-seven series and clinging to a 3-1 lead, Valentenko noticed goalie Dov Grumet-Morris was out of the net as AHL Rookie of the Year Luke Adam wound up hoping to slam in a rebound.

As Adam readied to fire from about 10 feet in front, the thought of scoring very much in his head, Valentenko dove across the crease and took Adam’s laser to the abdomen. The gritty Russian keeled over in pain from the shock of the shot, but the Pirates were awarded a penalty shot with 5:38 left.

“It was the first time I did that,” Valentenko said of his dive into the crease to prevent a certain goal. “I saw Dov was out of the net, so I knew I had to do something.”

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Grumet-Morris then stacked his pads to make a brilliant save on the penalty shot by Mark Parrish, who has played in 722 NHL games, sparking the Whale to the first of two 3-1 victories that tied the series. Despite blowing two three-goal leads Thursday night, the Pirates took a 3-2 series lead with a 5-4 victory on Parrish’s power-play goal at 2:44 of the third period that came 1:08 after Brodie Dupont had tied it and then committed a tripping penalty five seconds later. Game 6 is Saturday night at 7 at the XL Center.

“Pavel is probably one of the better shot blockers in the league,” Grumet-Morris said.

Grumet-Morris’s running mate in net, Cam Talbot, went even further, saying, “Pavel blocks shots so well it’s like having three goalies.”

Valentenko said he has patterned himself after a defenseman named Yahamov (he couldn’t remember his first name) who played for the Russian Super League team in his hometown of Nizhnekamsk, Russia, and nine-year NHL veteran Anton Volchenkov of Moscow, who just completed his first season with the New Jersey Devils after being the Ottawa Senators’ first-round pick (21st overall) in 2000.

The 23-year-old Valentenko said he saw how Yahamov and others blocked shots when he started playing hockey as a youngster in Nizhnekamsk.

“All my hockey career I’ve tried to block as many shots as I can every game because then it’s easier for the goalie and better for the team,” said Valentenko, nicknamed “Tank” in training camp by New York Rangers coach John Tortorella. “Even when I was a kid I was staying in the net and blocking shots. My father said, ‘Be a goalie if you want.’ I didn’t want to be a goalie. I just wanted to protect the net.

“Yahamov was not a big star, but he was a hard-working guy on the penalty kill who blocked shots. Blocking shots came natural, and I think it helps the team. Actually you can learn it by trying to find a good position and see where a guy places his stick with the puck and block an area. I don’t know how to learn that. It’s instinct.”

Valentenko began to try to refine his instincts at his first Montreal Canadiens training camp in 2007 when several media members said he reminded them of Volchenkov. After that, Valentenko began watching Volchenkov on YouTube.

“I knew who he was, but I had never seen his games, never followed him,” Valentenko said. “I saw him block shots and save some goals. And we never play on the power play.”

On June 30, 2009, Valentenko, a fifth-round pick of the Canadiens in 2005, was traded to the Rangers with former Yale center Chris Higgins, defensemen Ryan McDonagh, a first-rounder (12th overall) in 2007, and former Springfield Pic defenseman Doug Janik for center Scott Gomez and former Hartford Wolf Pack players Tommy Pyatt and Michael Busto.

Grumet-Morris, Whale assistant coach J.J. Daigneault and defenseman Wade Redden, a 12-year NHL veteran who is adept at blocking shots more with craftiness, said Valentenko reminds them of the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Volchenkov, known as “The A-Train” and the “Russian Bear.”

Redden said Volchenkov and former Hartford Whalers defenseman Curtis Leschyshyn are the best shot blockers he has seen.

“ ‘Tank’ plays a lot like Volchenkov,” Redden said.

Grumet-Morris said he appreciates players who blocks shots, though it can be “a mixed bag.”

“Certainly blocking shots is a skill, but there are some shot blockers who are obviously better than others,” said Grumet-Morris, who considers Valentenko, the Minnesota Wild’s Greg Zanon, Pittsburgh Penguins Rob Scuderi and the Canadiens’ Hal Gill the best shot blockers he has seen. “‘Tank’ is a guy who has kind of perfected the art, and the one thing it says to me as a goalie and the team is he’s willing to sacrifice his physical health in order to help the team win. That helps to inspire and motivate other players to push themselves beyond what they normally would.”

Though a mistimed block can cause havoc for a goalie, Grumet-Morris said the positives of a shot blocker usually outweigh the negatives.

“So much goes on on the ice – there are so many tips and changes of direction – and what a lot of people don’t understand is goaltending is a lot about luck, it’s the luck of the bounce,” Grumet-Morris said with a smile. “We can do a lot of things as goaltenders to put ourselves in position to benefit from a good bounce. However, a bounce here and a bounce there, and it changes the game.

“At times, yes, you pay a price at an attempted block that screens you or tips that change directions, but that’s part and parcel of the game and you accept that and move on and hopefully you end up on the plus end of that margin.”

Daigneault, who is in his fourth season as a Hartford Wolf Pack/Whale assistant coach, said the art of shot blocking has changed since he began an 18-year pro career in 1984 after the Vancouver Canucks made him the 10th overall pick earlier in the year. He called himself “an unnoticeable shot blocker” because he never went down to block a shot, preferring to use a long stick and winning one-on-one battles with bigger forwards by fronting them in front of the net.

“Nowadays being in the (shooting) lane is really important, and something you can teach,” said Daigneault, who considers former Canadiens teammates Guy Carbonneau, Rod Langway and Brian Engblom the best shot blockers he has seen. “A lot of it is also about being willing to sacrifice the body, and it’s getting harder for defensemen to get shots through to the net. So they have to be proficient at moving laterally to get shots on net because on any team there’s always guys who are very good shot blockers.

“And there’s more pressure put being put on the point men on the power play. The penalty killers are overall more aggressive. Before a lot of teams just sat back in their box and let the power-play guys play on the perimeter. Nowadays there’s back pressure, there’s pressure when puck possession is in doubt, there’s more pressure all over the ice.”

Daigneault said Valentenko, McDonagh and former Wolf Pack defenseman Vladimir Denisov are similar in that he had to work with them on not getting out of position when they tried to block shots.

“The willingness to sacrifice their body for the team and their teammates was there, but at times, they had a tendency to take themselves out of the play,” Daigneault said. “I think ‘Tank’ used to go down a lot early in the season, but he doesn’t do that as much. He blocks the shot, but he’s more efficient now at blocking shots.”

Daigneault also helped Rangers defenseman Daniel Girardi when he first arrived in Hartford, and this season he led the NHL with 224 blocks.

Whale coach Ken Gernander said his picks for best shot blockers are Mike Keane, who played 1,161 NHL games and 443 AHL games with his hometown Manitoba Moose before retiring last season, and Manchester Monarchs defenseman Andrew Campbell. He also pointed out the Rangers’ tandem of center/captain/Trumbull native Chris Drury and former Wolf Pack players Girardi, Ryan Callahan and Marc Staal.

“A key to shot blocking is being able to anticipate where a play is going so you can get yourself in the shooting lane,” Gernander said. “And along with that, there’s a bit of timing. If you go down too soon, the guy doesn’t attempt the shot. Too late, and it’s too late. So you have to be able to anticipate and read the play. And there’s a lot more pressure, so the onus is on the defenders or penalty killers to be in the shooting lanes. Blocking a lot of shots is a strength of Valentenko’s game, and he does great job on the (penalty) kill.”

Pirates coach Kevin Dineen was known as a good shot blocker in an 18-year NHL career that included nine seasons with the Hartford Whalers, though he jokingly called it his “Flamingo move” while contouring his body as if dancing. But Dineen thinks so much of the importance of the skill that he occasionally has his Pirates practice blocking shots with tennis balls or foam Chuck-A-Pucks that fans toss between periods to raise money for charity.

“It’s one of those intangibles that go along with the game,” Dineen said. “It’s a hard thing to practice, but every once in a while you try to change things up. It’s a real art, and back in the old days, Coach Q (Chicago Blackhawks coach and former Whalers teammate Joel Quenneville) used to have shin pads that were stuffed full of cotton and a little wider, and my brother Peter used to wear ankle guards. There are different ways to earn a paycheck, but there’s certainly a talent to it.”

Dineen said Quenneville, Carbonneau and Bryan Marchment top his list of best shot blockers, and Derek Whitmore and Tim Conboy are the best on the Pirates. Conboy proved that in Game 2 when he blocked Francis Lemieux’s shot with his shin pad, the puck caroming into the neutral zone to set up a 2-on-1 that Whitmore converted off Brian Roloff’s pass for a 3-2 victory at 12:04 of overtime.

“We try to encourage all our guys to get out there and do it,” Dineen said. “Whitmore is a guy who has no fear when he plays and wants to get shot blocks. Then Conboy blocks one in the second game that sets up the winning goal, so it makes a difference.”