Line of fire
MONTREAL – Most goalies get only one blocker to help them stops pucks. This year, Carey Price was lucky enough to have two.
In January 2011, Habs fans were surprised to discover that Josh Gorges had been playing the last seven years of his hockey career with a torn ACL. He announced he would be shutting down his season to have the ligament surgically repaired. After coming to terms with losing a key blue-liner for the rest of the season, the next logical question became, “If that’s what he played like with no ACL, what’s his game going to look like when he’s at 100%?” That question found its answer this season.
A full 82 games played, an NHL-leading 250 blocked shots, the second-highest amount of shorthanded minutes in the league, a team-high plus-14 differential and a Jacques Beauchamp Trophy to boot. Not bad for a season’s work.
“There were a lot of unknowns and uncertainties for me coming in to start this year. I didn’t know how my knee was going to hold up or if it was going to last the entire season. In the first couple of exhibition games, it was good to feel like I was able to keep up with the pace of play,” recalled Gorges, of his first tentative preseason test drives with his new knee.
“I got into a situation where I fell on it in a way that, most days, should probably have blown my knee out. Instead, it was able to hold up,” he explained. “I think that finally gave me the peace of mind to know that I could just go out there, play, and not worry or be hesitant because I knew the knee was strong.”
From that point on, fans were treated to a year-long shot-blocking clinic by the Kelowna, BC native. Gorges not only finished the season with over 50 more blocked shots than Tampa Bay’s Brett Clarke – ranked second with 199 – but he also destroyed the Canadiens’ record for blocks in a single season set by Mike Komisarek (227) in 2007-08.
Statistics and accolades aside, the area where it seemed Gorges grew the most as a player was off the ice. Under the spotlight in Montreal, the right attitude and character can often mean the difference between stepping up or wilting under the scrutiny that comes with playing for the league’s most storied franchise. Gorges clearly opted for the former.
Despite one of the team’s most difficult seasons to date, the 27-year-old rearguard was on hand taking bullets for his teammates on a nightly basis. Whether by showing accountability and facing the media’s tough questions that came after tough losses, or continuing to block point-blank shots for his goaltenders long after the Canadiens playoff hopes had fizzled and disappeared, Gorges continued to emerge as one of the team’s most dedicated leaders.
“It’s my job to go out there and stop the other team from scoring and if that means blocking shots, then I’m going to go out there and block shots. You do what you have to do to help the team win. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the playoffs or not,” expressed Gorges who averaged a whopping 3:53 of ice time per game on the NHL’s second-ranked penalty kill. “It wouldn’t be fair to my teammates if I didn’t go out there and play that way. You’re trying to do the right things, not only for yourself, but for the guys sitting beside you because you affect what happens in their lives and their game if you don’t do things the right way.”
With the most hectic 18 months of his career behind him, Gorges will head home to B.C. for the summer to refresh, refocus and let his many puck-sized bruises heal before jumping back into training. While the offseason will likely be a long one for every player on the Canadiens roster, Gorges can rest easy knowing he left everything on the ice before time ran out on the Habs’ campaign.
“I know this was a tough year and that this city and fans of the Canadiens expect a lot – as they should. It wasn’t easy for them to stand by us all season long with the way everything was going, but they did,” said Gorges, who disputed both his 300th game as a Hab and the 400th of his career in 2011-12.
“People are always going to have their opinions and expectations of us, but those things don’t matter. What matters is what we believe in this room and what we as a team are willing to put in and do together. Obviously when we’re healthy we’re a different team, and I really do believe we’re close to being the team we want to be,” he concluded. “Next year is a new year.”