The Blackhawks are barreling toward their second straight Stanley Cup hoist and third championship in five years.
Established stars such as Jonathan Toews, Corey Crawford, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa still are leading the way, but it takes plenty of grit and guts to win it all in the NHL.
Contact information ( * required )
That's where Niklas Hjalmarsson comes in.
"He's a great player," teammate Brandon Saad said. "He leads by example by the way he plays. Regardless of if he's saying stuff or not, how he plays on the ice, blocking shots, playing defensively, it speaks for itself."
After Monday morning's practice at the United Center, Hjalmarsson finally was able to speak.
On May 4, the Hawks' 26-year-old defenseman was doing what he does best against the Minnesota Wild in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Hjalmarsson blocked 4 shots in the Blackhawk's 4-1 win over the Wild. One of them, off the stick of Jonas Brodin, hit him in the throat.
Naturally, Hjalmarsson never missed a shift, and he literally has let his play speak for itself the past two weeks.
"The doctor just told me that you shouldn't talk for two weeks," Hjalmarsson said. "You should let it rest, don't talk unless it makes you money."
As a shot blocker, Hjalmarsson is solid gold, and he leads all postseason players with 42. It's a defensive art form that requires incredible sacrifice, and blocking Brodin's shot was extremely dangerous.
"It was pretty scary once it happened," Hjalmarsson said. "It was tough to breathe there for a couple minutes. I was just glad that I recovered quick. Once I figured out I'm able to breathe, it was a big relief.
"Yeah, I guess I was pretty lucky. I'm just glad to be able to talk again and can't wait to get rid of the neck guard I'm still wearing."
Hjalmarsson knows he's very lucky because he knows all about former Hawks defenseman Dave Manson, who was punched in the throat while fighting Sergio Momesso. Manson's voice never came all the way back and is still a rasp.
"Yeah, I heard him speak," Hjalmarsson said of Manson. "He was not as lucky as me, obviously. It was a little bit worse. As I said, I think I was pretty lucky when it actually happened. I'm just glad to be able to move on now and focus in on playing and communicating with my teammates and screaming again."
Hjalmarsson wasn't totally mute the past two weeks, but limiting his talk was a challenge.
"I think I did a pretty good job," he said. "I'm not the guy that talks the most in the locker room. I don't think the guys actually noticed it too much. If it would have happened to a guy like Shawsie (Andrew Shaw) or something like that,
"I think it would have been better. I don't talk that much usually, so it wasn't really a big adjustment for me."
Blocking shots is Hjalmarsson's preferred way of communicating, and that hasn't changed. In Game 1 of the Western Conference finals Sunday against the Kings, a 3-1 win at the United Center, Hjalmarsson and teammate Brent Seabrook tied for game-high honors with 4 blocks.
Hjalmarsson always seems to be laboring back to the bench after taking a screaming puck off some part of his body, but he rarely misses a shift and never alters his style.
"I think there's a little bit of a skill to it," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said of blocking shots. "I think knowing when you're close enough to the puck, it's a likelihood of hitting you in a more favorable place, it can prevent serious injuries, self-inflicted wounds for that matter.
"Certain guys are more willing than others. There's anticipation when the shot is going to be made.
"The danger factor, what you're preventing, when you're killing penalties, there's a lot of looks when a guy is coming down, loading it up, you're right there. (Hjalmarsson) has a good knack of knowing he's willing. His positioning is what you're looking for. Sometimes they don't shoot it, but a lot of times they will."