Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson click as blue-line partners for Hawks
BY MARK LAZERUS firstname.lastname@example.org February 23, 2013 9:36PM
Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Maxim Lapierre
BLUE JACKETS at BLACKHAWKS
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Updated: March 25, 2013 6:59AM
If you ever need an honest, perceptive and genuinely thoughtful answer to any question, Johnny Oduya is your guy. The veteran Blackhawks defenseman is a font of perspicacity and perspective, an oasis of insight in a sporting desert of cliches and coach speak.
But even Oduya pretty much came up empty when asked to explain the undeniable chemistry between himself and blue-line partner Niklas Hjalmarsson.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’re Swedish?”
Well, whatever it is, it’s working. It’s working so well, in fact, that when Brent Seabrook had to miss Tuesday’s game against Vancouver, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville didn’t dare break up his No. 2 pairing, instead moving Sheldon Brookbank to the top pairing alongside Duncan Keith.
Oduya and Hjalmarsson are solid defenders. But combined, they’ve become a borderline elite unit for the 14-0-3 Hawks. Through 17 games, Oduya has a plus-9 rating, while Hjalmarsson is plus-7. For comparison, Keith and Seabrook — a pairing so good that they stay together even on Team Canada — are a combined plus-6.
“I don’t know how to explain it, really, it’s just been going pretty good here the first third of the season,” Hjalmarsson said. “We’re pretty similar in the way we play the game — we like to be in the shooting lanes and play really good in our own end. We’re just battling real hard and having a lot of fun.”
The two were thrown together during the abbreviated training camp once the lockout ended in January. Oduya, acquired from Winnipeg for two draft picks on Feb. 27 last season, had been partnered with Steve Montador until Montador’s concussion in late March. Hjalmarsson, who paired with Brian Campbell during the Stanley Cup run in 2010, had been with Nick Leddy last season.
The Swedish duo clicked instantly.
“It’s always different coming in with a new partner, you don’t really know what to expect and how things are going to work,” said Oduya, who has played for four NHL teams. “But I never doubted he’s a great hockey player. For me, he makes things really easy, and hopefully I do the same thing for him. It’s been working pretty good.
We want to move forward and get better and grow together.”
And there’s something to the Swedish thing. While they speak English on the ice and in the locker room — “That way the guys don’t think we’re talking [crap] about them,” Hjalmarsson said — they speak in their native tongue on the bench in between shifts, hashing out what’s working and what isn’t.
Oduya and Hjalmarsson think defense first, ranking in the top 25 in the league in blocked shots, more reluctant to join then attack than, say, Keith and Seabrook, despite having good size and speed. But both are working on rounding out their games. Hjalmarsson said his goal is to get at least one shot every game — he had three last week against San Jose, posting his only goal of the season and an assist.
Oduya has six assists but is the only everyday player on the team without a goal.
“Maybe we can work a little bit more on getting up into plays and joining the offense a little more, creating something,” Oduya said.
“But that’ll come with time, too. I’m not too worried.”
If anything, Oduya is the Hawks’ lucky charm. Since he joined the roster, the Hawks are 26-2-7 in regular-season games, 28-3-10 including the playoffs.
“It’s like the stock market — sometimes it goes up, sometimes it goes down,” he said. “I was lucky last year. I came in after a down period where the team was on the rebound, and obviously this year we had the good start. I feel I’m lucky to be here.”
And lucky to be partnered with a fellow Swede, the two bringing out the best in each other.
“It’s a big security to have that,” Hjalmarsson said of a steady partner. “And that we’re both Swedish makes it even more fun.”