Hawks will­ing to take one for the team

Hawks will­ing to block shots — no mat­ter the phys­i­cal cost

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGO SPORTS - By Jimmy Green­field

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.”

ERIN HOO­LEY/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

De­fense­man Den­nis Gil­bert blocks a shot against the Avalanche on Wed­nes­day at the United Cen­ter.

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