A little pain worth the win for Hjalmarsson

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
2:49
PM CT
Powers By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- The fear of a potential goal is far greater than the fear of physical pain for Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson whenever he sees a puck bolting toward his team's net.

Hjalmarsson learned that about himself early in his hockey career. Losing always hurt more than anything else. He can get over the pain. Giving up a goal isn't so easy. It's why he's never been one to hesitate aligning his body with a rapid-moving puck.

[+] EnlargeBlackhawks
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesThe Blackhawks' Niklas Hjalmarsson had a team-high 157 blocks in the regular season.
"I've always been like that since I was a kid," Hjalmarsson said Wednesday. "I always hate to lose, and I try to do everything I can to prevent goals being scored when I'm on the ice. Usually that means you have to block a couple shots."

Hjalmarsson has been effective in doing just that throughout the Blackhawks' first-round series with the St. Louis Blues. He has blocked 14 shots, third among all players in the playoffs, through three games.

"Positionally, he's sound," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "His anticipation of when the shot's going to be, he's really good at it. His proximity to the puck makes it a little bit less dangerous as far as getting hit in other areas. He's got that added protection around the skates, which [without them] can be dangerous with feet problems. I'm sure he has more than his share of bruises on top of bruises. And the willingness to do it is a big factor."

Hjalmarsson's shot-blocking skills have been essential to the Blackhawks' penalty kill. He has helped hold the Blues to one power-play goal on 16 chances in the series.

"We've had a lot of penalty kills, and it's desperate times in the playoffs," Hjalmarsson said. "You really want to be able to do everything you can to prevent them [from scoring]. We've been killing a lot of penalties the first three games. You got to do what you got to do. I think we've been doing really good so far on the kill. Hopefully we can keep it going here."

Hjalmarsson has paid a price at times for his commitment to preventing goals in any possible way. Pucks have caught him on less padded areas of his body three times in the series. Each time he has slowly skated off the ice, gone to the bench, hunched over in pain for a bit and returned to the ice for his next shift.

His teammates are often in awe of his ability to bounce back.

"It seems like it's happened plenty of times before where it seems like he's down and out or whether he's hurt or if he just gets stung, but he always gets back up and gets out there the next shift," Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said. "It's pretty amazing."

Blackhawks defenseman Sheldon Brookbank believes blocking a puck is more impressive than dropping gloves with an opponent.

"They say guys fighting and everything is tough, but stepping in front of pucks takes some serious courage," Brookbank said. "[Hjalmarsson] and [Michal Handzus] and [Johnny Oduya] and a lot of guys get in front of pucks, and it takes a lot to do that. I know it doesn't feel good, but he lays it on the line and does a good job at it. So we're definitely happy to have him doing that for us.

"I've taken some pucks, and they don't feel good if you get them on the flesh. It's not easy, but [Hjalmarsson] battles through it and he's one of the toughest Swedes I know."

Hjalmarsson joked that he so often limped off the ice after being hit by a puck because he wasn't tough enough.

"Maybe I'm sensitive or something like that," said Hjalmarsson, who had a team-high 157 blocks in the regular season. "It's just one of those when you get in on the inside of your knee or outside of your knee right on the bone, it just stings for a minute or 30 seconds and after that you feel better. Usually it's just for a minute or two it really hurts. After that, you're usually fine.

"I'm just in the moment. 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. ... You're pretty much just waiting [when the shot comes], hoping you get the shots somewhere where you have pads, otherwise it's going to sting a little bit."

Quenneville has become so accustomed to Hjalmarsson blocking shots and being in pain that he never worries about losing his defenseman to injury when it happens.

"He's blocked so many hard shots and key shots that however it's going to turn out, it's not going to slow him down," Quenneville said. "He's a warrior."
Scott Powers is a general reporter for ESPNChicago.com. He is an award-winning journalist and has been reporting on preps, colleges and pros for publications throughout the Midwest since 1997.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Patrick Sharp
PTS GOALS AST +/-
78 34 44 13
OTHER LEADERS
GoalsP. Sharp 34
AssistsD. Keith 55
+/-M. Hossa 28
GAAC. Crawford 2.26