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Ever-resilient Hjalmarsson protects net, amazes fans, inspires teammates with his shot-blocking
Niklas Hjalmarsson’s season has ended at least half a dozen times this season.
Or, at least, it’s looked like it has.
It’s becoming nearly as common a sight as Patrick Kane’s “heartbreaker” goal celebration, or a Marian Hossa takeaway, or a flashy, high-glove save by Corey Crawford. Hjalmarsson puts himself in between a slap shot and his own net, takes a screaming slab of frozen rubber flush on the inside of his thigh — or his knee, or his ankle bone, or his rib cage — and nearly collapses, willing himself to finish the shift and then limping off to the bench, where he hunches forward in agony, waiting for the pain to subside.
“Maybe I’m sensitive or something like that,” Hjalmarsson said with a wry smile.
Or insanely tough, considering he’s always right back out there for his next shift. One or the other.
“I’ve taken some pucks, and they don’t feel good if you get them on the flesh,” fellow defenseman Sheldon Brookbank said. “It’s not easy, but he battles through it. One of the toughest Swedes I know.”
Only Columbus’ Jack Johnson is averaging more blocked shots per game during these playoffs than Hjalmarsson, who had thrown himself in front of 14 St. Louis shots through the first three games of the series, entering Wednesday night’s Game 4. Since he returned from the Olympics in Sochi, where he earned a silver medal, Hjalmarsson has had at least four instances where he practically had to crawl off the ice after blocking a shot — only to hop right back over the boards minutes later.
Many of the blocks comes on the penalty kill, which has been crucial in a penalty-filled series. But these are the playoffs — no matter what the situation, no matter what point of the game, every block is worth the pain. Desperate times, and all.
Hjalmarsson’s legs are littered with bruises after some games, and he’s often shuffling around the postgame locker room in obvious pain. Not that it stops him — or Johnny Oduya, or Brent Seabrook, or Michal Handzus, or any of the other shot-blockers on the Hawks roster — from stepping in front of the next one.
“You’re pretty much just waiting, hoping you get the shots somewhere where you have pads,” said Hjalmarsson, whose first child, Theo, was born last week. “Otherwise, it’s going to sting a little bit.”
There’s an art to it — anticipating the shot, crouching in a way to hide unprotected areas, and even knowing when not to block a shot and to allow Crawford to see the puck cleanly. And the Hawks have mastered the art — averaging more than 20 blocks per game (64 through three games), tops in the playoffs.
“You always love a guy that does that for a team,” Marcus Kruger said. “That’s as important as scoring a goal.”
Fans and teammates certainly appreciate the sacrifice. The United Center crowd chanted for Handzus after he made a couple of sliding blocks during a third-period penalty kill in Game 3, and the Hawks feed off such plays.
“It was awesome to watch,” Patrick Kane said. “Those guys do it all year round, and then I think it’s a little bit more attention in the playoffs because they are such big games. I can even remember a play I think [Hjalmarsson] lost his stick and [Handzus] was going to give him his stick, and as the puck came through he just kind of laid down on the ice and blocked a shot. They do a great job of blocking shots and laying their bodies on the line. Huge parts of the penalty kill and defensive zone as well.”
Kane called it “pretty amazing” how Hjalmarsson always seems to bounce back from the body blows.
Hjalmarsson called it just doing his job.
“I’m just in the moment,” he said. “I’m just thinking about what I have to do on the ice to help the team — and just try to be in the way.”