After Gary Bettman’s lockout wiped out a season, and with all the new rules that emerged in 2005, “hitting” became a dirty word in NHL circles.
Physical play was discouraged and the league did everything it could to remove it from the game.
But a funny thing happened as players began to reach the NHL younger, bigger and faster than ever.
Along came the big, bad St. Louis Blues, who pounded their way to a Stanley Cup championship last season, hammering their way through the West, and finally beating up the consistently big and bad Bruins.
You knew that would have an effect on the game.
Some teams were trending that way regardless, understanding that all things being equal — especially skill and speed — you take bigger over smaller any time.
This arrives as breaking news to some.
But the Blues sent a message to the league when they dressed a defense including Colton Parayko (6-foot-6), Joel Edmundson (6-4), Jay Bouwmeester (6-4), Alex Pietrangelo (6-3) and Carl Gunnarsson (6-2).
It wasn’t that they always won the hits total. It’s that the Blues handled any lineup that tried to intimidate them and dished out plenty of their own punishment without giving up their need to possess the puck.
That’s the great fallacy entrenched in those who believe hitting is evil.
It doesn’t mean you’re less interested in possessing the puck. It doesn’t mean running out of position to deliver a hit. It means finishing a check within the confines of your system.
Hits have an exponential effect and anyone who says hits don’t matter has probably never been hit.
Especially given that the Hawks don’t have the kind of skill they did when they could afford to get their brains beat in and still win Stanley Cups, the Hawks had to adjust to a bigger league.
It’s not like they’re suddenly the ’75 Flyers, or that they’re even that much bigger than they were last year.
They’re just a little bit bigger on defense and have a few guys up front willing to finish a check, adding a hair of diversity to their lineup.
Oh, the humanity.
Relax. Hits are good. They punish a defense — as Andrew Shaw did Monday night against Edmonton — and they can sometimes wake up a bench.
Again, without running out of position — because having the puck remains the goal — you can advance the objective by getting the opposing defense looking over its shoulder instead of looking to make a play.
Alex Ovechkin is one of the most physical players in the league, last year finishing 16th in the entire NHL in hits.
It was so bad for his overall game that he scored more goals (51) than anyone in hockey.
When Ovechkin is on the ice, you don’t just look for him because he might score. You look for him because he might knock you into Sunday. You worry about him and forget to retrieve the puck.
That brings us back to the Hawks, who have outhit the opposition in four straight games. According to NHL Stats, it’s the first time they’ve done that since March 2009, when they averaged 20 hits over four games.
The last time they did it in five straight was February 2008, when the streak lasted six games.
Heading into Tuesday’s action, the Hawks were second in the NHL in hits per game (33), trailing only the Penguins (33.5) — a team with a decent amount of skill — and ahead of all the traditional beasts.
It’s also not exclusive to the number of hits. It’s more about the quality, the timing and the opposition believing they might be taken off the puck, though you would have to actually watch a game to understand this.
“Going back to the summer, we wanted to add that element with Shaw and (Zack Smith) and even on the back end with (Calvin) de Haan, who can play a physical game,” said Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton. “It’s both to give our team energy and to keep the other team honest.
“We’re not just gonna swing away, throw our stick into the pile and hope for the best. We’re gonna go through you.
“We’re not looking to play dirty or take penalties, but put pressure on the other team and maybe force them to make that play a half-second early. That could help us.”
This is not a radical approach. It is as old as hockey.
For the hard of reading, physical play is not the answer to everything. It is simply another dimension that can help you win games.
Hits add up throughout the course of a game and if you inflict enough punishment — without costing your team puck possession — it’s a bonus.
This is difficult for those who prefer ice ballet. They believe that is the purest form of the game, having never seen hockey before 2005.
Well, that’s fine when you have more skill than everyone else, as the Hawks did for a long time, and as the Red Wings did before them.
But if you don’t, you need different ways to play and different kinds of players to get it done.
So the Hawks are hitting more this year. Maybe it will help them win a few more games.
At the very least, it makes them more entertaining.
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