Hawks willing to take one for the team
Hawks willing to block shots — no matter the physical cost
The last time an NHL goalie stepped in front of a shot without wearing a mask was 45 years ago.
Makes sense, right? To willingly take a chance that a frozen piece of rubber going more than 100 mph could strike them in the face and do serious damage would be crazy.
Yet every game, position players — mainly defensemen — step in front of slap shots with their faces exposed and far less protection on their bodies than goalies wear.
And they don’t give it a second thought.
“They’re crazier than we are, man,” Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford said. “They got no cage on their face and stepping in front of slap shots. They’re nuts. People think we’re crazy, but we got all the gear. Especially Dmen. They’re going down with, like, half the gear, nothing in front of their face.
“And we’re nuts? That’s crazy.” Maybe. But for the players who put their bodies on the line to prevent pucks from reaching Crawford and Robin Lehner, it’s just another day at the office.
“It comes when you play the game,” Hawks defenseman Olli Maatta said. “You don’t think, you just play.”
Or just pray. “Sometimes you just close your eyes and wish it hits your (knee pads),” Maatta said.
The thinking actually takes place before the game when the Hawks top shot-blockers outfit themselves in an effort to stay as safe as possible. They wear their regular gear — knee pads, shoulder pads, elbow pads, etc. — but many also use a protective plastic over their skates.
“There’s always parts where you have a little bit of padding that’s sticking out or isn’t connected,” defenseman Connor Murphy said. “Or even sometimes where it hits under your padding and still catches a piece of your body and hurts. It just bruises usually. The worst that can happen is it can break a bone.
“There’s some areas where you can even keep playing with broken bones. Trainers get a good amount of padding, (and) you’re fine usually.”
Players also use time-tested techniques to protect themselves.
“There’s different styles,” Maatta said. “Some (players) want to be straight up, facing the shot. Some want to be (on) one knee, turn a little bit and cover the ice that way. I don’t think there’s wrong or right way to do that. You can see a lot of guys be successful. It doesn’t matter how you do it. It’s the awareness (that) you’re taking away part of the net.
“It’s tough to take away the whole net, but you’re giving (the shooter) a little less chance to hit the net, (and if it gets through), the goalie knows what side it’s coming.”
The Hawks were fifth in the league with 540 blocked shots entering Saturday night’s game against the Avalanche. They have been without Calvin de Haan, their leading shot blocker with 73 in 29 games, since he suffered a shoulder injury Dec. 10. He could be out for the rest of the season.
But since he has been out of the lineup, the other defensemen have, quite literally, stepped in. Murphy has 19 blocked shots in five games since de Haan’s injury while Maatta (12) and Dennis Gilbert (11) also have picked up the slack.
It went largely unnoticed, but earlier this season Brent Seabrook passed up Dan Girardi to become the NHL’s all-time shot-block leader with 1,998. The NHL didn’t begin keeping track of blocked shots officially until the 2005-06 season, when Seabrook was a rookie.
The most vulnerable body part when blocking a shot is the face because almost no NHL players wear a cage for protection. The few who do usually wear one temporarily to protect an injury.
Then when it heals, off comes the cage.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of blocking shots. A shot that doesn’t get through can’t go in the net, can’t find its way in through a deflection and won’t be available for a rebound goal.
It’s as if the shot never happened. Except, of course, for the pain that comes with it. While players wear extensive protection, not every spot is covered.
Last season Murphy fired a shot from the point that broke the arm of Wild forward Mats Zuccarello. Murphy has been on the receiving end of shots that don’t too good as well. His insistence that players don’t fear blocking shots doesn’t mean a lot of pain isn’t involved.
“Sometimes it hurts, (but it) depends where it hits you,” Murphy said. “It hits your knee and makes your leg a little numb for a bit or it locks up. Or it just stings and your initial thought is to test it to make sure you’re good to stand on it. Sometimes you see guys get stunned a bit and (it) takes a minute for the initial pain wave to go away where they can push through that.”
Ultimately the reason players block shots is because it’s their job. And because they have a thirsty, insatiable desire to win.
“It’s desperation and willingness to do whatever it takes not to get scored on,” Murphy said. “Anytime you see a guy that’s about to wind up and you know you have a chance to get in the lane, you just do it and hope it hits you. You trust it’s not going to hurt. You have enough equipment.
“You know that you can break up a lot of plays by doing that and you can keep guys from getting their pucks on net. It allows you to turn things around.”
Defenseman Dennis Gilbert blocks a shot against the Avalanche on Wednesday at the United Center.