Niklas Hjalmarsson knows the risks that come with the job.
When you’re a shot-blocking defenseman, you’re going to take your lumps. You’re going to have your stingers. You’re going to be black and blue. It’s an occupational hazard, and he’s fine with it.
“I’ve always been like that since I was a kid. I always hate to lose and I try to do everything I can to prevent goals being score when I’m on the ice,” he said. “Usually, that means you have to block a couple shots.”
The Blackhawks are grateful that Hjalmarssson puts getting victories behind sustaining bodily harm. Hjalmarsson is one of three players with a postseason-leading 18 blocks through four games (Columbus’ Jack Johnson and the Blues’ Alex Pietrangelo also have 18). He has hobbled off a few times after blocking shots against the Blues but always shakes it off. Head coach Joel Quenneville isn’t even surprised anymore.
“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. He’s a warrior,” Quenneville said. “His anticipation of where 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.”
Still, it’s a painful way to make a living, and it has to even make his teammates wince, right?
“Yeah, but we've seen him do that so many times before and he always seems to be all right,” Marcus Kruger said. “That's something we all appreciate here. You always love a guy that does that for a team, getting a block like he did (Monday). That’s as important as scoring a goal.”
Indeed, Hjalmarsson’s blocks have been key, especially on the Blackhawks’ penalty kill.
“He’s probably coming up with four or five (blocks) a game, but a couple of them are really game-changing blocks and shows he’s a warrior out there,” Ben Smith said. “There’s a reason why he’s on teams that have had success, because he’s sacrificing a lot.”
There is an instinct or a feel for shot blocking. After all, there’s a fine line between knowing it’s best for you to block a shot or to allow your goaltender to see it.
“You have to choose your spots to block,” Hjalmarsson said. “We know pretty much what kind of shots (Corey Crawford) wants to take. You just can’t be a screener yourself. If you want to try to block a shot, you really have to block it; otherwise you’re just going to be a double screen for the goalie. If you’re going to try and block it, you better block it.”
Hjalmarsson’s instincts and ability to withstand the blocked-shot pain has paid dividends for the Blackhawks. Sure, it’s a painful job, but somebody’s got to do it.
“We’ve had a lot of penalty kills and it’s desperate times in the playoffs. You really want to be able to do everything you can to prevent them to score,” Hjalmarsson said. “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 (well) so far on the kill. Hopefully we can keep it going here.”