Silvertips take one (or two, or three, or more …) for the team

EVERETT — The date: January 16.

The location: Spokane Arena.

The Everett Silvertips defeated the Spokane Chiefs 2-1 that night, one best remembered for the infamous postgame punchout between Everett’s Kyle Beach and Spokane’s Chris Bruton.

But lost in the commotion and controversy was Everett defenseman Mike Alexander’s audition for the role of the villain in a horror flick.

The game was in its final minutes when Everett, clinging to a one-goal lead, found itself having to kill off a lengthy Spokane five-on-three power play.

The Chiefs decided to employ the strategy of bombing away from the point with one-timers by heavy shooters Jared Cowen and Justin Falk.

But Spokane’s strategy didn’t account for Alexander.

Three straight times either Cowen or Falk wound up and fired. All three times Alexander threw himself in the path of the puck and upon contact went down as if shot, each time crumpling to the ice worse than the time before.

But just like Jason of Friday the 13th fame, no matter how much damage Alexander took he just kept coming back. He remained on the ice and only after yet another shot deflected off his body and into the stands, bringing a stoppage in play, did Alexander finally limp his way to the Everett bench.

The Tips ended up killing off the penalty and winning the game, while Alexander ended up with bruises all over his body and a baseball-sized welt on his bicep that kept him out of the following game.

“I think I took two in the knee, one in the bicep — that was probably the worst — one toward the back, one in the arm, hand, shoulder, pretty much everywhere,” recalled Alexander, who ended up blocking nine shots that game.

But ask Alexander or any of Everett’s other top shot blockers about it and they’ll say it’s well worth the pain.

“It doesn’t really bother me to get bumps and bruises every once in a while,” said Everett defenseman Graham Potuer, who was leading the team in shot blocks with 59 through his first 22 games. “It’s a sacrifice I like to make for my team to help us win.”

Shot blocking is an entrenched part of Silvertips culture. During every game at Comcast Arena one will witness an Everett player flinging his body into the path of an opponent’s shot to prevent the puck from reaching the net. Everett’s veterans in particular — Alexander, Potuer, Taylor Ellington, Zack Dailey and Jesse Burt top that list — are adept at an art that receives little credit but plenty of pain. In some ways it’s become the defining characteristic of the franchise.

“(Alexander’s famous shift against Spokane) was the first clip we showed this year at training camp during orientation, showing what it took to be a Silvertip,” Everett coach John Becanic said.

Blocking shots is a relatively new phenomenon in the WHL. When Everett began play in 2003 as an expansion team, it was a rare site to see a player laying across the ice in order to get pummeled by the puck.

But former Everett coach Kevin Constantine came to the league with a plan. He taught the players the proper techniques for shot blocking — getting in front of the stick rather than the player; either going down on one knee and squaring up to the shooter or sprawling out on the ice, depending on the situation; making sure to turn the head away to avoid taking a shot in the face. He drilled the team constantly during practice, using orange foam pucks that bounced off the body harmlessly as the players perfected those techniques. Then he demanded the players employ those techniques during games.

And it produced results. Everett became one of the most difficult teams in the league to score against. The Tips penalty kill is annually ranked in the league’s top five, in large part because of shot blocking. Now all the teams in the league block shots to some extent.

But nowhere is it revered the way it is in Everett. The players on the bench give standing ovations for teammates who make spectacular shot blocks. Even the fans acknowledge the act, giving a loud cheer for particularly dramatic shot blocks.

“I think that the culture here with our fans and our staff and our players, (shot blocking) is a big thing for them,” Becanic said. “I think it’s easier for guys to buy in because everybody wants some kind of pat on the back, and they know for a blocked shot that usually gets the biggest pat on the back in the locker room.”

While there is a technique to shot blocking, there are two qualities that are equally important: courage and pain tolerance. A hockey puck is made from a dense rubber, and the hardest slap shots in the WHL come in at 100 mph. All the technique in the world won’t prevent a player from bailing out when fear is involved. And although the players are wearing pads, there are plenty of seams for the puck to find. As a result, it’s common to see Everett players wincing in pain as they return to the bench after blocking a shot.

And make no mistake, there is some fear involved for Everett’s shot blockers.

“When Cowen hit me with that first one, I was pretty scared and I knew the next one was going to hurt even more,” Alexander said. “Some of the boys say, ‘Why did you get back in the shooting lane, why didn’t you just let it go through?’ You get hit with one you might as well get hit with another, right?

“It hurt pretty bad, but when I got back to the bench (former teammate) Dane Crowley was on the bench and after the game he told me it almost brought a tear to his eye,” Alexander continued. “It almost did to me, too, it hurt so bad. But it felt so good at the same time. I don’t know how to explain it.”

But how much of a difference does it make to a game’s final result? The Tips typically block between 12 and 16 shots per game. If they’re giving up 30 shots on goal a game, that means shot blocking potentially reduces the number of shots on goal by a third.

“Every shot that doesn’t get to the net won’t go in,” Potuer said. “If our team blocks 30 shots in a game that’s 30 shots that aren’t getting on net that have a chance to go in. So I think shot blocking has a huge effect on the outcome of the game.”

And the shot blocking has an effect beyond just the numbers. The players get pumped up when a teammate blocks a shot.

“If you watch on the penalty kill and Zack Dailey goes out there and blocks a shot, our whole bench will stand up,” Alexander said. “The guys love that, the coaches are yelling, and once that penalty kill is done, if you had four blocked shots on that penalty kill it’s a whole new team.”

So while it may not garner the headlines, shot blocking is a vital part of Everett’s game, and those who do it best take great pride in their accomplishments.

“People think I’m crazy,” Potuer said. “They don’t see why I want to stand in front of a little round rubber puck moving 100 mph and taking it in the arms or somewhere else. But those are the sacrifices you have to make for the team.”

Especially when you play for the Everett Silvertips.

Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog:

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