Bob Ford: Flyers bonded under painful circumstances

Ian Laperriere has repeatedly taken shots for the team. "It's about timing and desire to block it," he said.
Ian Laperriere has repeatedly taken shots for the team. "It's about timing and desire to block it," he said.
Posted: May 28, 2010

Boxers will sometimes take a punch in order to deliver a better one, and baseball players will occasionally stick a hip in front of a breaking pitch to get on base. Football receivers who stray across the middle of the field know that catching a lofted pass will bring a price, and basketball players driving the lane with the game on the line can expect a hard foul.

Pain, injury, and danger lurk on the edges of most sports at the highest levels, but hockey is the only one in which the players routinely seek out the peril.

"You're not worried about getting hurt. You're not worried about blocking a shot with your face. You're trying to," said defenseman Chris Pronger. "You're playing for the ultimate prize. It's the Stanley Cup. Now we're down to two teams, just two out of 30, and you do whatever it takes to win."

The Flyers have become, as great teams always do, a group that plays better than the sum of its collective parts. Coach Peter Laviolette says the team has all "bought in." The players have come together after an inconsistent regular season and bonded into something that three rounds of the playoffs have not been able to pry apart.

"When you are overcoming adversity and winning games, your team builds, it grows," Laviolette said. "When there are setbacks you go through, you hope the glue is sticking on the team and it becomes stronger. I think ours held."

You can see it on the ice in dozens of ways, in little things - not giving up on a play, taking a hit in the corner, trusting in a teammate. But there is nothing more evident of a commitment to team than sprawling in front of an opponent's shot to keep it from reaching the goalie.

"This next round," said Ian Laperriere, who bears the scars of that commitment, "it's going to be the team that wants it more that's going to get it."

Laperriere isn't the only player who blocks shots on this team, but he is the battered poster boy for the selfless act. He took a rising slapshot in the face in November, an injury that cost him seven teeth, a broken bone above his lip, and 100 stitches. The injury happened in the first period and he was back on the ice for the third.

In the first round of the playoffs against the Devils, Laperriere went to the ice and was hit again, this time far more seriously. He suffered a concussion, a brain bruise, and a broken orbital bone. It was assumed he was out for the rest of the season, but Laperriere returned in Game 4 of the conference finals, less than a month later. He's wearing a thicker helmet and a full face shield now, but only because the doctors insisted.

Most of the time, you get a bruise when you block a shot. What can happen is evident, however, and just as evident is that the Flyers are willing to sacrifice themselves for each other.

"It's probably not one of the jobs in life you're really happy about getting, but some guys are really good at it," Laviolette said. "Some guys are more willing to make sure it hits them. We've got broken feet to show for it, bruised foreheads, bruised brains . . . it's courageous, laying down in front of a shot going 90 miles an hour all for your team's success."

In the regular season, a team might have a dozen blocked shots a game, but that number rises as the games get more important and the will to win on that night rises in proportion. In the playoffs, it might be 25-30 blocks a night. And even in the most important games, some teams, some players are more willing than others.

"It's about timing and desire to block it," Laperriere said. "It's easy to make it look like you want to block it, but it's harder to put yourself in that shooting lane and block it for real. This time of year every guy on this team has that will to block it and we have that."

No one appreciates it more than the goalie, of course.

"A lot of teams just want to get the puck to the net, get traffic and create opportunities from that," said Michael Leighton. "When guys like Pronger and Kimmo Timonen step in front of the puck and take those wrist shots away, it pretty much eliminates the scrambles in front of the net."

Is it always worth it? Not logically. Sometimes the shot would be wide or be turned aside. Sometimes the injury that could result would cost more than one goal allowed. The Flyers would say it is always worth it, however, at least right now. It is worth it because blocking a shot might make the difference, and the mere act is a symbol of their commitment to each other.

They watch the games. On some other teams, they see players who could block a shot now and then, but arrive just a little late each time.

"That happens. It happens in the playoffs, too," said Pronger. "And those are the teams that don't advance."


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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