DENVER — His team trailing 3-0 and largely standing still on Tuesday night against Winnipeg, nobody would have noticed had Niklas Hjalmarsson just played out the string for the last 21 seconds of the first period.
Instead, Hjalmarsson did what Hjalmarsson does — he stepped in front of a Jay Harrison shot. The puck caught him in the chest, knocking him down to his hands and knees for a few moments. Eventually, he made it to his feet.
Then he stayed on the ice for the ensuing faceoff. Of course.
“He gets through it,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “He doesn’t miss a shift.”
He’s missed plenty of practices, though. For the first two-plus weeks of December, Hjalmarsson skipped every practice and morning skate as he battled through an undisclosed injury, finally returning to practice on Dec. 19. It wasn’t the first time in his career that Hjalmarsson has stayed off the ice between games, and given his style of play — frequently hurling himself in front of pucks with reckless abandon — it likely won’t be the last.
He’s only 27 years old, but Hjalmarsson’s body — from his feet to his legs to his chest to his throat to his face — has officially absorbed 959 shots in his NHL career. So he’s earned the rest, along with Quenneville’s trust. Veterans who log a lot of minutes, such as Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa, get occasional “maintenance days,” but very few get to do what Hjalmarsson did.
“Not every guy would be playing games in between missing those stretches of practices, but he’s a warrior,” Quenneville said. “He’s got more than our trust.”
Most players would love to skip every practice and just play games, but Hjalmarsson acknowledged that the on-ice workouts have their benefits. And it’s not as if Quenneville’s a taskmaster — perhaps no team in the league spends as little time practicing as the Hawks do.
“In the long run, you really need to practice,” Hjalmarsson said. “Sitting out works for a couple weeks like this, but in the long run you can get out of shape if you’re not practicing.”
And, no, Hjalmarsson doesn’t plan to tone down his style to save his body anytime soon.
“There are a lot of guys that are dinged up but play through it,” he said with a shrug. “It’s not just me that does it, it’s all over the league. It’s just something that comes with the job. You kind of get used to being in pain somewhere.”