Saturday night, Cal Clutterbuck pulled off his unique version of a hat trick. He almost had his helmet thrown onto the ice, with his head still in it.

In a sequence typifying the Wild rookie's physical play, Clutterbuck crashed into Ottawa's Mike Fisher in front of the Senators' bench. It was a clean hit, but Ottawa's Chris Neil, having watched Clutterbuck rattle his teammates' molars all night, retaliated by slamming Clutterbuck to the boards, even though the puck was long gone.

With Clutterbuck immobilized, Ottawa's Jarkko Ruutu, sitting on the bench, reached over, grabbed Clutterbuck's head and gave it a twist, as if he wanted to mount it on his living room wall.

The officials gave Ruutu, who once bit an opponents' ear, a 2-minute minor penalty for attempted decapitation. Clutterbuck took the abuse without taking a penalty himself, and we learned two lessons about NHL players:

1) Although hockey players are reputed to be tough, many of them react like wimps when they get hit, and Clutterbuck takes full advantage of them.

2) Clutterbuck, at 21, displays a more mature form of toughness than almost anyone else in the league.

Clutterbuck has been credited with 218 hits this season and is on his way to breaking the league record of 311 set by Los Angeles' Dustin Brown last year.

The statistic has been tracked for only five seasons, so it's not like he's breaking a hallowed mark, but the number tells us that Clutterbuck exhibits a rare aptitude for body checks, whether you consider them the result of skill or attitude.

"I think it's a bit of both,'' Clutterbuck said. "There's definitely some anticipation and timing involved. Especially at this level, with the guys the size that they are, and with the balance that they have, you're going to have to catch them off-balance or by surprise if you're going to knock them over.

"It's an attitude, too. There are certain guys who have the opportunity to finish their checks sometimes, and for whatever reason they choose not to. They may try to pick off a pass or strip the puck off somebody. My approach is to just hit 'em.''

With Marian Gaborik hurt, there are fewer reasons than ever to watch a Wild game. Mikko Koivu is an accomplished and precocious two-way player. Owen Nolan is remarkably productive at 37. Niklas Backstrom ranks in the league's top handful of goalies.

It's Clutterbuck who most often draws the eye, though, with a relentless and physical style that causes most of the players he hits to react like toddlers who have just had their favorite toy taken away by an older brother.

After a hard hit, Clutterbuck usually receives a slash, a crosscheck or a punch. Because his job is to draw penalties, Clutterbuck has to withstand the abuse and hope for a whistle that will give his team a power play.

"I think some guys just don't like getting hit,'' Clutterbuck said. "It's just annoying, I guess, if you keep coming and coming and coming after them. It's just part of my game. That's why sometimes I tend to be effective, because they retaliate and take a swing at me or slash me, or whatever. If that's going to put us on the power play, then great.''

Is it difficult not to return the slashes and punches? "It's actually not that tough,'' he said. "It's kind of amusing, actually, when someone punches you and slashes you. I kind of just get a chuckle out of it, and just keep on skating.''

Clutterbuck has a hard shot, but he has just eight goals this season. Wild coach Jacques Lemaire sees more in the future.

"I don't think this kid will change,'' Lemaire said. "I like what he does. He's getting some chances. He's got a good shot, and I just think that he's going to get his share of goals.''

Clutterbuck's foremost goal is to rattle his opponents' fillings and feelings. He is the rare athlete who is just as likely to prove his toughness by taking abuse as by dishing it out.

"It's just something I do,'' he said. "I've been told if I'm going to play at this level, this is the way it's going to be.

"I have no problem with that.''

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP •