LOS ANGELES — How on earth did defenceman Adam Larsson play 22:19 in the Edmonton Oilers season opener, despite breaking his fibula halfway through the first period?
"It’s a good question," said the quiet Swede, who returns Thursday — seven weeks later — on a pairing with Kris Russell. "I thought it was of those (injuries) you could just shake off. But, it kinda never went away."
How much pain would there have been, as the shifts piled up?
"It was a lot, yes," he said sheepishly. "I thought it was one of those blocks where (the pain) would go away after a while. Then eventually we got to the third period, I couldn’t skate anymore."
Larsson could no longer hop over the boards, finally succumbing to the injury in the waning moments of a 3-2 win over Vancouver.
"Two or three minutes left in the game (when he called it quits)," marveled head coach Dave Tippett. "And even when he did that it was because he felt he didn’t want to hurt the team, because he wasn’t at his best. So not only is he a warrior, he’s a smart guy who is trying to win."
He’ll take Matt Benning’s spot next to Russell, with Benning in concussion protocol after taking an Evander Kane stick to the head Tuesday in San Jose.
Larsson is the kind of player a team like Toronto could use, when they’re being pushed out of the playoffs by Boston. What kind of a shot in the arm does Larsson provide?
"There are certain guys who are ‘glue guys.’ They hold the team together," Tippett said. "Their commitment to winning goes beyond goals and assists. It’s the guts of the games — playing against the other team’s best players; blocking shots. Things that allow your team to win are usually the things that he’s involved with.
"He’s an old school player who plays the game hard, plays hurt and understands what he has to do to be effective. And he plays accordingly."
Hockey people revel in the fact their players are the toughest in pro sports, a subjective topic that could survive several pints without a definitive answer being arrived at.
Football is a hard game, and rugby is even tougher. But no other sport has a rock hard object flying around as fast as 100 miles per hour — that players are intentionally standing in the way of. Sure, a batter will get hit by a pitch once in a while, but very seldom is he doing so intentionally.
That is why, when a player like Larsson returns to a team, he brings an intangible, unquantifiable quality that hockey players love, and many outside the game do not quite understand.
"He’s a true leader," said Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse. "Each and every night he shows up with his hard hat, ready to work. Leads by example each and every day. And not only is he great out on the ice, he adds a lot here in the room. It definitely adds a boost."
For Edmonton, a team that has vastly improved his goals against, Larsson is that hard-rock, difficult to play against, right-shot defenceman. He’s not a big points guy, but it’s no fun going into a corner with Larsson, and that’s an element that every team can use on their D-corps.
"If you’re being physically pushed, each and every shift," said Nurse, "I’ve never met a guy who likes going into a corner and getting knocked off a puck, or getting into a hard stick battle. He doesn’t lose many battles. You go against him, you know you’re in for a tough night."
A lean Larsson came to camp down a few pounds, and was slated to be paired with Nurse on what Tippett hoped would be the Oilers "shutdown pairing." Asked on Thursday if that was still the plan, Tippett sounds like he’s moved on from the idea, after watching Nurse work with Ethan Bear.
That is just one of the things Larsson has watched evolve in his absence. Safe to say, he didn’t think he’d be joining a 14-6-3 team when he returned to the lineup.
"Our top two guys have been outstanding, and Bearsy coming in — he’s been outstanding," Larsson said. "Good goaltending helps. Pretty much every aspect of the team has been better this year. Special teams have been outstanding too."
Larsson will likely work his way towards a spot next to Oscar Klefbom, but opens next to — ironically — one of the game’s elite shot blockers in Russell.
"Let him block the first shot tonight," laughed Larsson.