Hjalmarsson blocks out pain to help Blackhawks
|Niklas Hjalmarsson's shot blocking has become a staple of his game (Getty Images).|
CHICAGO -- Niklas Hjalmarsson will not be quoted in this story and it's not because he declined interviews.
It's because of what the defenseman does best for the Chicago Blackhawks whenever the Stanley Cup Playoffs roll around. It's no accident that Hjalmarsson leads the NHL with 34 blocked shots heading into Wednesday, and one of those blocks is the reason he can't speak right now.
A puck shot by Minnesota Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin in Game 2 of the Western Conference Second Round series at United Center deflected up and appeared to hit Hjalmarsson in the neck area. After staying down on the ice, he skated slowly to the bench and sat there for a couple minutes shaking off the pain.
When it was time for him and defense partner Johnny Oduya to take another shift, Hjalmarsson swung his legs over the wall and kept on playing. It's a sight his teammates have gotten used to witnessing.
"I don't know if you get surprised or not [anymore]," Oduya said Wednesday, a day after playing Game 3 with Hjalmarsson, who wore a Kevlar neck protector and was unable to communicate vocally. "Sometimes [you're amazed], but you wonder what goes through his mind when [he gets] hit with pucks like that."
Chicago leads the best-of-7 series 2-1 heading into Game 4 on Friday at Xcel Energy Center (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN, RDS), and it's become almost expected that Hjamarsson will limp off the ice at some point in every playoff game. It happened again in Game 3 on Tuesday with 8:21 left in the first period.
The puck was in the Chicago defensive zone and Minnesota defenseman Marco Scandella launched a slap shot from the left point. The puck struck Hjalmarsson in the left skate. He immediately dropped to the ice in pain but scrambled to his feet and finished the remaining 40 seconds of his shift, helping the Blackhawks clear their zone.
"There's a lot of special people on our team and he's been really tough," Oduya said. "Toughness is not always how hard you hit somebody. A lot of times it's what you can take and go through, just being fearless. That's something I think he proves and he does that every night."
Tuesday, Hjalmarsson did it while unable to speak, which led to some interesting situations for him and Oduya, Chicago's shutdown pairing.
"There was no communication [Tuesday] night with him," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "He was quiet, but he still played through some tough shifts. I think in his game, his instincts are always in the right place defensively and trying to get in lanes and kill plays. He's going to get some big [defensive] assignments as well."
Hjalmarsson's willingness to block shots is what gets noticed most. It's not exactly a rewarding role, but it's important. There was a void in that area following Chicago's 2010 Stanley Cup championship. Hjalmarsson and defenseman Brent Sopel led the way in absorbing shots during that postseason, but Sopel wasn't retained.
The gap was eventually filled by a number of Blackhawks willing to sacrifice their bodies, but Hjalmarsson has led the charge. That effort continues to be a big reason it's difficult to score against Chicago, which is allowing an average of 2.33 goals in their nine playoff games.
Chicago leads the NHL with 173 blocks, spearheaded by Hjalmarsson's 34-and-counting.
"He's a warrior and he's been blocking a lot of shots his whole career here," said right wing Patrick Kane, who said he thought he heard Hjalmarsson yelling at times in Game 3 despite the throat issue. "It's a different situation getting hit in the neck, but he came out, did what he had to do, still played great, still did what he does for our team. That's one of the guys you really respect come playoff time, you know, blocking shots. He did it again in the first period [Tuesday], where he blocked one and it looked like he was down and out, and came back and played. He's been doing that a long time for us."