|Finally healthy, Michael Blunden has put up big numbers for the Rocford IceHogs this season.
So when a rebound of a shot by teammate Martin St. Pierre hit off the shaft of his stick and flew into the net with 58 seconds left to tie a game against San Antonio on Dec. 16, well, Blunden wasn’t throwing that one back.
“I’ll take them,’’ Blunden said of the flukey score. “Good things are happening.’’
Luck is one thing. Talent is another. When Blunden scored at the 17:15 mark of the third to tie a contest against Lake Erie on Dec. 8, and potted a third-period game-winner vs. San Antonio on Dec. 18, you had to start thinking that maybe something stronger than a four-leaf clover is at work here.
“It just happens to be going in for me late in the third period,’’ Blunden said. “I had some bad luck last year. I’m just trying to turn it around and stay positive and keep playing. I’m really excited about this year.’’
In that regard, Blunden, in his second full pro season and just a few days past his 21st birthday, speaks for the entire IceHogs roster. The team has ridden an 8-0-0-4 streak to the top of the West Division. Blunden’s clutch play has been at the hub of that spurt.
As the power forward on a potent top line with Martin St. Pierre and Kris Versteeg, he’s created room for those two offensive forces and contributed nine goals and 13 assists. The 6-foot-3, 207-pounder moves well and is a bull on the forecheck, forcing turnovers for those two to convert into points.
There’s a little extra lilt in Blunden’s tone, though, that is his alone. It’s a mixture of restlessness and relief, a pent-up energy that bubbles when you’ve stared down two serious injuries by the time you are old enough to legally crack open a beer.
Scoring is good. Winning is even better. But in terms of a mood-enhancer, nothing can match the simple act of playing again.
“It’s a lot better (now), trust me,’’ Blunden said. “Last year was tough, coming to the rink every day, sitting on the couch, watching TV. I just want to put last year in the past.’’
There isn’t much for Blunden to leave in his wake. He played an encouraging nine games for the Blackhawks, who took him in the second round of the 2005 draft, and 17 more for Norfolk. Then, in a game against Binghamton on Dec. 15, 2006, he was checked into the boards.
The blow ripped the labrum in his shoulder and cost him the rest of the season. It might have been enough to make Blunden feel sorry for himself for half a day or so, except that even at that point he still knew to count his blessings.
“The shoulder surgery was like a walk in the park for me,’’ Blunden said.
Here’s what really gives him shivers -- the 15 percent possibility. It doesn’t sound like an imposing figure, nothing that represents high odds of anything. Unless you are talking about the end of your career. Then, 15 percent sounds like a thunderstorm rolling in from the distance.
That was the percentage that doctors gave Blunden of losing hockey forever back in 2003-04, when he was in his second season with Erie of the OHL. Blunden needed back surgery to correct a stress fracture on a vertebrae that he apparently had since birth.
The operation was expected to go well, but there was that small chance that Blunden wouldn’t be able to play again. Fortunately, that remote possibility never turned into anything more than a caution flag, although Blunden’s recovery had its harrowing moments. For the first week after the surgery, he lay still in bed.
“That’s been my whole life so far, playing hockey,’’ Blunden said. “Once I heard (about the risk), I was like; ‘What?’ It was definitely scary. I couldn’t keep playing with the pain I had in my back.’’
Given the uncertainty of what he’s been through the past few seasons, it’s understandable how Blunden has learned to milk the little things. IceHogs coach Mike Haviland raves about his preparation and attention to detail.
“This year, I think he had something to prove to himself, and everybody, after missing almost the whole season (last year). This guy makes his own breaks,’’ Haviland said. “He doesn’t take any days off. He’s very detailed in everything he does. He’s a guy who is ready from when the puck drops. He’s not waiting for the third period to turn it on.’’
Blunden shares a house with St. Pierre, Versteeg and Adam Berti. Those last three often don’t need an alarm clock. They can wake up from their naps to the sound of Blunden clanging around in the house’s weight room.
“We always joke around at the house, where do you find the energy for that?’’ St. Pierre said. “He’s a machine.’’
Blunden said he picked up on the importance of covering all his bases while attending a Chicago preseason camp. He said then-Blackhawk Jim Dowd stressed to him that while games are important, it’s what happens in practice that really dictates a player’s bottom line.
“You’re at these places (training camp), you listen to veterans talk, you take bits and pieces, you learn on your own,’’ Blunden said. “You listen to what everyone says. It’s like life. Everyone has something to say. It’s what you take from it (that counts).’’
And, just as importantly, what you leave behind. Blunden has no urge to review the misfortune of getting two bad injuries at such a young age except to hope they mean his luck in that area is about to change.
“There’s nothing I could really do about those. Now my body is good. I’m ready to go,’’ he said. “Injuries happen all the time. Hopefully I can get them out now and be healthy the rest of my career.’’