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Musick: Every game a block party for Hawks' Hjalmarsson

Published: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 11:40 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, April 24, 2014 12:48 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Alex Brandon)
Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson (4), from Sweden, dives for the puck in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals, Friday, April 11, 2014, in Washington. The Capitals won 4-0. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

CHICAGO – A small disc made out of vulcanized rubber is flying at you at 90 mph.

In response:

a) You scream in terror as if Justin Bieber were playing an eternal concert in your brain.

b) You whimper softly as if you just realized the Cubs have 142 more games to play.

c) You calmly and confidently decide to place your body the direct path of that shot.

If you chose “c,” then you are a crazy person or a hockey player or both.

Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson is both.

During his seven-year NHL career, Hjalmarsson has accumulated more bruises than a forest of old bananas. The 26-year-old from Sweden led the Hawks with 157 blocked shots during the regular season and has become even more of a madman in the playoffs with 18 blocks (and counting) in the Hawks' first-round series against the St. Louis Blues.

Why, Niklas, why?

“I’m just in the moment,” Hjalmarsson said after Wednesday’s morning skate. “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.”

A small sliver of time passes between when an opponent fires a shot and when Hjalmarsson feels it crash against his skin and bones. In the split-second interim, before the crowd goes crazy and Hjalmarsson limps back to his feet, the Swede’s mind is a place of clarity.

“You’re pretty much just waiting, hoping you get the shots somewhere where you have pads,” Hjalmarsson said. “Otherwise, it’s going to sting a little bit.”

No.

A spider bite stings a little bit. Shampoo in your eyes stings a little bit.

A puck traveling faster than a Porsche on the Kennedy does more than sting a little bit.

“I just try to get the pain away somehow,” Hjalmarsson said. “I don’t really think about what I’m doing.”

Clearly.

“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,” Hjalmarsson said. “Usually it’s just for a minute or two it really hurts. After that, you’re usually fine.”

And I thought I was tough after my recent bout with spring allergies.

Hawks coach Joel Quenneville knows a thing or two about toughness. He sees plenty in Hjalmarsson, a no-frills player who is under contract through the 2018-19 season.

“Positionally, he's sound,” 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.”

Does Quenneville ever worry when he sees Hjalmarsson lay down his body to block a shot? Well, in a word, no.

“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.”

Good luck finding any of Hjalmarsson’s teammates to disagree.

“We've seen [Hjalmarsson] do that so many times before and he always seems to be all right,” Hawks center Marcus Kruger said. “That's something we all appreciate here.”

It’s something the Hawks will continue to appreciate because Hjalmarsson has no plans to change his shot-blocking ways. Maybe he’s a millionaire and maybe he already has two Stanley Cup rings, but he’s going to keep blocking shots because he knows no other way.

“I’ve always been like that since I was a kid,” Hjalmarsson said. “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.”

Just a couple.

• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at tmusick@shawmedia.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.

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