Blocking shots big part of game for Blackhawks

In one of the funniest scenes in "Happy Gilmore," Adam Sandler steps into a batting cage, plunks a quarter into the machine and prepares for an onslaught of baseballs.

Not to hit them, mind you.

But to get hit by them.

When the third one bonks him in the middle of his helmet-less head, a dazed Sandler mutters: "Oh, God that hurt a little, but I'm all right."

It prompts Chubbs, the incredulous golf pro, to exclaim: "My God son, what the (heck) are you doing?"

Sandler: "Three hundred and sixty-four days until next year's hockey tryouts. I gotta toughen up!"

That, in a nutshell, is the world many NHL defensemen live in … one in which they must sometimes put their seasons on the line by stepping in front of a frozen piece of rubber zipping along at 90 MPH. Instead of making its way to the goalie, the puck often hits them in the leg. Or knee. Or stomach, arm or - God forbid what happened to Brent Seabrook a month ago vs. Calgary - the eye.

"Thirty stitches," Seabrook said.

Some players are more fearless than others, some better at it than others. Three of the more adept - or perhaps brave - Blackhawks include Trevor van Riemsdyk, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Seabrook, all of whom currently rank in the top 30 in the NHL in blocked shots.

Hjalmarsson hates being on the ice when the other team scores, so he has made blocking shots a part of his game almost from the minute he strapped on the pads.

"I'm not the guy that's gonna put up a lot of goals," he said. "I try my best, but somehow it doesn't work that good (laughs).

"So I just do whatever I can to help the team win games. If that means to block shots and shutting down the other team's top line, that's my way to contribute."

A different game

Blocking shots became more of a necessity 10 years ago when the NHL moved the blue line back four feet. It was thought this would allow teams more room to operate in the offensive zone and increase scoring.

That hasn't happened and there has been talk this year of widening the nets and/or reducing the size of goalie equipment so more pucks end up in the net.

In the end, coaches realize defense wins games and defensemen know that blocking shots is a component of the game that is critical to any team's long-term success.

"It's definitely something you take pride in," Seabrook said. "I mean, it's not the most glamorous job or the funnest job. But playing on the penalty kill, you've to got to try and block shots.

"You do as much as you can to help the goaltender out and try and kill plays."

Don't think

So what goes through a player's mind when he sees someone winding up, ready to unleash a shot toward him? Not a whole lot, as it turns out.

Said van Riemsdyk: "It's usually such a short time. It's just get in front of it. … It's never really, 'Well, should I do it? Should I not?'

"You're there, you step in front of it and you block it. Or if the (shot) is way out there, there's no traffic in front, you let Crow (goalie Corey Crawford) have those because he'll save those 100 out of a 100."

Hjalmarsson expects it to hurt and hopes it doesn't hit him in a bad spot, as one did last week against Edmonton. Hjalmarsson lay on the ice for a bit and went to the locker room, but returned without missing hardly any time.

"It makes a big difference," Crawford said. "Take those plays away in front of the net - if those pucks get though, who knows? Maybe there's a rebound, maybe there's a second chance, a tip.

"You're just eliminating more opportunities in front of the net when you block shots."

No player, or team, wants to rank too high in the blocked-shots category because that means the other team has the puck that much more. Not all blocks hit the body, either - a player also get credit when the puck deflects off his stick.

Other than last season when Hjalmarsson ranked 50th in blocked shots, both he and Seabrook have been incredibly consistent during their careers, both finishing in the top 35 the last six years. This season, Hjalmarsson ranks 24th, Seabrook 28th and van Riemsdyk 14th.

"You don't want to give any A-plus chances to the other team," Seabrook said, "and sometimes guys walking down the pipe or D-men coming around the outside have some pretty good looks. So you try to take their angle away - sometimes it hits you, sometimes it misses the net, sometimes Crow makes the save."

No fear

One might think van Riemsdyk would be more reluctant after taking a puck to the knee in the 18th game of his NHL career last season. But, as Seabrook pointed out, van Riemsdyk is so good positionally, he will get pelted every now and then.

Said van Riemsdyk: "If you just go for it and (get) square to the shooter, it's rare that you're gonna get hurt too bad. Last year I was tied up with a guy in front, wasn't really looking to block it and it kind of caught me."

Van Riemsdyk, technically a rookie, admires Hjalmarsson, now in his seventh full season with the Hawks and making $4.1 million a year.

"He's stepping in front of everything and anything," van Riemsdyk said. "So there's no excuse for anybody else not to be."

Jonathan Toews agrees: "(Hjalmarsson's) always laying down in front of shots. He doesn't care where it hits."

So appreciate what you see from the Hawks' defensemen - and the forwards as well, especially on the penalty kill. It's a tough world in front of the net.

Just don't expect any of them to copy Happy Gilmore's training program.

Said van Riemsdyk: "I'm not going to any batting cages, that's for sure."

• Follow John on Twitter @johndietzdh

Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber slides to block a shot in a Dec. 15 game against Calgary. Associated Press
Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Ron Hainsey blocks a shot headed toward goalie Eddie Lack in a Dec. 11 game against Anaheim. Associated Press
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