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Hjalmarsson Makes Immediate Impact With 'Inspirational' Return

The Coyotes' proven and dependable defenseman re-joined the roster on Sunday night

by Alex Kinkopf @AEKinkopf / Arizona Coyotes

When Niklas Hjalmarsson blocked an Eric Johnson shot in Colorado on October 12, few expected the stalwart defensive pillar to miss the next 43 games.

After all, he was doing what he does best, and what he's done for so many years.

Defending, protecting the goalie, sacrificing his body to add to a career line that includes nearly 1,500 blocked shots.

"He's worked extremely hard to get back to this position," head coach Rick Tocchet said of his defensive cog. "It killed Nik to be out for that long, it's an inspiring thing for us."

Following nearly three months of grueling rehab and recovery, the 32-year-old defenseman returned to the Coyotes' lineup on Sunday night, logging 16:41 TOI and assisted on a gigantic third period goal. Hjalmarrson, of course, was courageous in the shooting lanes from the get-go, blocking two shots.

"Coming into the locker room and seeing my jersey hanging in my stall next to [Oliver Ekman-Larsson ], I felt right at home," he said. "I was a little nervous before the game, it's tough to jump in in the middle of the season when everybody's been playing a lot of games, but I felt all right."

Was he timid diving right back into one of the many aspects of his game that make him so valuable, a leader, a three-time Stanley Cup champion?

"As soon as you start worrying about getting hurt when you come back, that's usually when it happens," he noted when asked of his blocked shots. "As long as you stay on top of your game and play smart, you can stay away from a lot of dangerous situations."

He played his game, and though it might take some time to get his full wind back, Hjalmarsson had an immediate impact.

"Nik was great, he was exactly what we needed, that type of guy," Tocchet said. "He's loud on the bench, he communicates, he talks, he adds that juice for us on the bench, which we need. If there's a bit of a lull, you hear him, he's talking. And obviously there's his play, his play does the talking too, he was solid for us tonight."

Even Taylor Hall , who's been with the Coyotes for less than a month, felt and experienced Hjalmarsson's return while playing in just his 13th game with his new team.

"He's a huge part," Hall said, referencing the influence he sensed playing alongside Hjalmarsson in a game situation for the first time. "He wears a letter, he's played in big games, he's won Stanley Cups, you name it. It's inspiring to see a guy rehab his way back, find his way into the lineup and then make a great play there in the third period. Those are things in the locker room that sometimes don't show up in the scoresheet, but when you get a guy back like that it's a huge boost for our team, I was happy to see him out there."

Derek Stepan and Hjalmarsson have been teammates for the entirety of each other's Coyotes' tenures, and for Stepan, having his long-time dependable colleague back on the blue-line hit home.

"I was happy for him, he's been itching to get back and rehab's never fun," Stepan said. "He just kind of steadies things, he battles hard, he does a lot of stuff for us on the PK. He's able to talk us through things in between periods and get our group on point, he's just such a big piece. For us to be in this spot and for him to be a part of it is just great."

The two even connected for that aforementioned third period goal, which momentarily gave the Coyotes their first lead of the night in the latter half of the final frame in a tight-knit back-and-forth battle.

Video: PIT@ARI: Stepan buries one-timer in front of net

Stepan had a hunch the two would connect, but just not on the offensive side of things. Both players, after all, are constant fixtures of the Coyotes' stingy penalty kill unit.

"I told him before the game that 'you're going to find me with a backhand pass'," Stepan said with a chuckle. "However, I meant it on the PK, in the middle of the ice in the defensive zone, not on the offensive side of things."

His contributions have been immediate; both on the ice and off the ice to further drive the excitement of a Coyotes team that is pushing for a playoff spot in the Pacific Division.

"I'm excited, we're right in the mix here," Hjalmarsson said. "Chayka has done his part, bringing [Hall] to the team and adding some offense. I think we have a lot of talent in this group and I think we can play great hockey; they've already been doing a great job of that. If everybody plays to their abilities, I think we have a really big chance to get into the playoffs, and we should expect that out of ourselves."

And if there's anyone who knows a thing or two about qualifying for -- and winning -- in the playoffs, it's #4.

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