TORONTO – No human being on Earth, or the National Hockey League at the very least, fires a puck with more destruction and velocity than Zdeno Chara, the six-nine, 255-pound captain of the Bruins defence, clocked at one point with a bomb that reached 108 miles per hour. Of the season-high 31 blocked shots the Leafs absorbed in a close 3-2 victory over Boston on Saturday, five came off the tape of Chara.
"In the moment, it's just a reaction, you just do it," Mark Fraser, the team's leading shot-blocker, explained to TSN.ca. "It's hard to explain why, it's just that engrained craziness of a hockey player. Honestly. Some guys literally do it with their face."
Following Saturday's barrage, the Leafs catapulted to the NHL's top spot in blocked shots (entering Sunday's action), nearly doubling their nightly average in a long-awaited win against their tormenting foes from Massachusetts.
"To be honest, it's something that's incredibly overlooked as far as what it means to the outcome of a game or what it means to a level of team commitment," said Fraser, who tied for a team-high five blocks against the Bruins, now with 64 on the year. "I'm very proud to be on a team that carries that stat because again it's just guys showing their willingness, not just for the goalie but for one another. And to be honest, I think we could still even do a better job of it."
If there is an art to the blocked shot, it perhaps lies in simple sacrifice.
"Stupidity," laughed Mike Kostka when asked what it took to stand in the way of a Chara blast, the 27-year-old sitting third on the team in blocked shots, expected to re-enter the lineup in a rematch with the Bruins on Monday. "You know what's going to come and you have to kind of expect the worst and then just hope for the best. I think it's just that mindset, it's gonna suck."
"I think half of the art to it is just being brave," Fraser added, noting the necessity of timing when it came to blocking a shot. "It doesn't feel good."
Physical damage is just part of the assumed risk.
Fraser recalled a particularly harrowing and painful experience last year with the Marlies.
About to wrap an eventual series win over Abbottsford, en route to a berth in the Calder Cup Final, the 25-year-old absorbed a Krys Kolanos stinger off the inside of his foot.
"I chose not to get an x-ray for obvious reasons of playoffs," he said. "I guess the diagnosis by the end of playoffs was maybe some small micro-fractures and deep bruising."
A broken foot more or less. And after he and his teammates boarded a flight back to Toronto from B.C. for the upcoming Western Final against Oklahoma City, the foot ballooned. "I was visibly in pain," he said. "I couldn't really go at my own top speed."
Digging deeper into his collection of bumps and bruises from blocked shots, Fraser remembered the hand he broke years back with the Devils. "Sometimes it hits nerves or joints and your whole arm goes numb," he grinned. "But it's just the make of what we are as hockey players that guys are willing to do it."
One added danger of the blocked shot attempt is the off-chance it ends up in the back of the net anyway. That was the case in the dying minutes Saturday when Andrew Ference fired a point shot off Fraser's left skate, the puck trickling past James Reimer. "I asked [Ben] Scrivens afterward if he would want me there or not and on the bench," Fraser noted, "he said 'we would rather have you attempt to do it than second-guess yourself and just kind of be in the way'."
The Leafs have embraced the requisite mind-set.
Recalled from the American Hockey League on Wednesday, Ryan Hamilton was among four (Cody Franson had a pair) to stand in the way of a Chara blast. He summed up that required mentality.
"Try not think about it," he said. "Obviously he's got a cannon, but you just try to get in the shot lanes, you try to make yourself look big."
"I had the opportunity (Saturday) on the penalty kill to line up in Chara's shot lane and he ended up passing it back to his partner," Fraser added. "I had a sigh of relief actually."