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Flames put their bodies on the line with brave shot-blocking effort in Tuesday's victory

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick /

With one of his brothers lying flat on the canvas, writhing in pain and clutching his head, of all places, David Rittich's first thought was to take action.

"I was really worried," the netminder said of Noah Hanifin's courageous, head-first block in Tuesday's win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. "I thought it was bad. Like, really, really bad.

"I skated over as quick as I could and asked him right away if he was OK, and he said yes. Then I saw the blood on the back of his head.

"Wasn't a good feeling.

"I was watching the replay after and still couldn't believe it. His face. He put his face in front of that shot for me. For us.

"I don't think I've ever seen that before."

With David Savard loading up for an otherwise clean look at the top of the circles, Hanifin bee-lined from the corner and dove head-first into the path of the defenceman's rising blast.

Six ounces of unforgiving, sub-zero rubber struck the back of his head with the force of a hammer drill, dropping the 6-foot-3, 215-lb. blueliner and causing all sorts of concern from both teams in the vicinity.

The sliding block might not have been textbook, but the action itself represents much more.

The Flames aren't letting complacency creep into their game with only nine games left on the spring docket, and clinching a playoff spot three weeks early serves to remind of what needs to be done before the puck drops April 10.

"We have to play like that," Rittich said. "We can't lose like 10 games in a row and expect to start the playoffs at a high (level). We want to be ready for that, and the only way to do it is to play every game until then as if it's a playoff game.

"Plus, we want to finish first in the division. That's our (motivation) right now."

Video: CBJ@CGY: Rittich kisses the post after shot hits it

There's no 'on/off' switch when it comes to the competitive nature of these athletes, regardless of what's on the line.

Ditto, teams preach about their close-knit culture more than the media drones on about it.

But in the case of this first-place team, there's more than cheap talk as living proof of that.

Hanifin's play garnered most of the post-game attention, and rightfully so. But Curtis Lazar stepped up and made a gusty block earlier in the game, too, leaving briefly after catching the brunt of the impact with his right knee and tottering off in obvious pain.

Then there was Mark Giordano, who made perhaps the biggest play with an unorthodox goal-line stand that kept the Flames up by two at a critical juncture late in the second.

Whatever it took, the Flames were willing to do it.





"You see it on the bench," Hanifin's D partner, the oft-bruised Travis Hamonic, said of the bravery on display Tuesday (and all season). "Everyone gets up."

Hamonic, himself, had six of the Flames' 14 blocks - many off the shin pads but a few, he admits, in "some more painful spots."  

"It's part of the game, but it's not exactly fun," he said. "You know you've got a shot that you've got to block, the anticipation of it is not the easiest thing in the world. It's nice when you see the bench getting up and the rest of your teammates recognizing the sacrifice.

"There's a possibility you're going to get hurt, maybe, to try and save a goal and help the team win, right? As a group, we're very cognizant of that, and as players we really appreciate when guys are putting their bodies on the line."

Hanifin - like Lazar before him - returned to finish the game, showing no ill-effects from the buckle-bomb that felled him a half-hour earlier.

And not surprisingly, he put himself in harm's way almost immediately, blocking a shot off the right leg on only his third shift back.

"Just trying to do my job and help the team win," he said, nonchalantly.

Because that's what they do.

Video: "We want to get back to being sharp"

"It's innate, right? That's how you play," said head coach Bill Peters. "You don't turn it on and off. You're either a competitive guy or you're not.

"The scoreboard comes on, the bright lights come on, it's time.

"Our guys know that."

All for each other, and all for a shot at reaching their goal.

"We've got a group that genuinely, really, really cares about each other," Hamonic said. "When you have that camaraderie, it's special. It's not like that on every team.

"When you see those sacrificial things on the ice in games, it's because we're playing for each other.

"And we want it that bad."

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