Hockey / Sports

The Chicago Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews (19) and Minnesota Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov (30) battle for the puck in the first period in Game 6 of a Western Conference semifinal at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., on Tuesday, May 13, 2014. (Elizabeth Flores/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

In NHL playoffs, you play through pain for gain

Marcus Kruger limped through the Blackhawks dressing room and passed Niklas Hjalmarsson, who still isn't medically cleared to speak after taking a puck to his throat.

They are just two of the walking wounded among the Hawks who are gutting through injuries ranging from bumps and bruises to more serious maladies as they continue their quest for a second consecutive Stanley Cup. It is the time of year when aches and pains are put aside and significant injuries are endured through therapy, painkillers and mental fortitude.

Just what would it take to keep a hockey player off the ice during the Stanley Cup playoffs?

"Probably damn near not walking," winger Kris Versteeg said.

That warrior attitude is common throughout the NHL as the lure of hoisting the Cup is an elixir that keeps players in the lineup despite injuries that would sideline them during the regular season.

"It's different because this opportunity, you never know when it's going to happen again," winger Marian Hossa said after practice Thursday at the United Center in preparation for the Western Conference finals that begin Sunday against either the Ducks or Kings.

"As long as you can stay on your legs you try to play and bring something to the table. There are guys with lots of different things but that's playoff hockey."

Hossa knows that as well as anyone after playing the final two games of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final with a disk problem in his back that numbed his right foot. The veteran was unable to skate well enough to contribute much offensively, so coach Joel Quenneville had him concentrate on defense to limit the Bruins' scoring attack.

"As long as coach thinks you can contribute, he's going to put you there," Hossa said. "(If) you can skate on one leg you can go."

Said Quenneville: "In the playoffs, everybody has issues; it's to what level. Whether it's with our medical staff, training staff, coaching staff, organizationally we have some input, but we always want to be smart in the long-term safety of the individual -- you want to make sure you're not compromising long-term health.

"Hockey players, they know what's at stake: There's a chance to be a champion and they'll do everything they can to get themselves out there."

Quenneville, who is loathe to discuss injuries, cited Bryan Bickell's ability to stay on the ice last postseason while playing with a wrist injury that needed offseason surgery as well as a Grade 2 knee sprain.

"To me, what Bick did last year in the finals from the medical point of view was almost shocking as he didn't miss a game." Quenneville said. "We're lucky in that regard. I don't like talking too much about injuries. That might have been the longest I've ever talked about them."

For Bickell, it was just a matter of handling the pain.

"You take stuff to ease the pain (because) this time of year you don't want to be on the sidelines," he said. "You want to be out there doing whatever it takes."

To keep players on the ice, the Hawks employ a phalanx of medical professionals that provides services ranging from massage therapy, chiropractics and mental skills to strength and conditioning. Treatment occurs at the United Center and during trips before and after games. And it doesn't end there.

"They give us stuff to bring home," said center Michal Handzus, who fought through a knee injury and a broken wrist during the 2013 finals. "I'd do treatment here and then at home just to maintain it. This time of year, your family won't see you much. It's all about hockey now. You take care of your body. It's almost 24 hours."

There is also plenty of ibuprofen and stronger painkillers, though the latter are not a popular topic in NHL dressing rooms.

"Yeah, there's a little bit of that," Handzus said. "(But) it's mental. As hockey players we can deal with pain. You kind of get used to it."

Said veteran defenseman Sheldon Brookbank of painkillers: "I don't really notice many guys doing too much stuff like that. I'm sure there would be. There's not as big an urgency in the regular season to really push through an injury when you could take a couple of days and rest up but in the playoffs there's no tomorrow so you do what you have to do and you push your body as far as it will go."

Versteeg, who has had his share of injuries during his career, including reconstructive knee surgery just more than a year ago, said the use of painkillers usually is reserved for times off the ice.

"It depends on what's going on with you," Versteeg said. "If it's something maybe you can't sleep at night or you have a separated shoulder and you can't lay on your side, I'm sure some guys might take a painkiller to help go to sleep. I definitely had to take them when I had my surgery ... and they helped me along the road to get sleep.

"I don't think anybody would ever really use those on the ice. It's more just take Advil if you can and maybe the odd freeze (spray) if your fingers are broken."

The winner of the Stanley Cup often is the team that wins a war of attrition, and players are determined to stay on the ice.

"Guys do what they have to do," Brookbank said. "Anyone who goes all the way definitely has to sacrifice some pain."

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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