The NHL still packed plenty of crunch despite growing concerns about player safety. (Icon SMI)
By Michael Blinn
Many fans worry that the NHL is slowly but steadily legislating physicality out of the game, and this year delivered plenty of fuel for debate about player safety in the form of big, thundering checks that sent players end-over-end, tumbling into benches, and, on rare occasions, through the glass. Most of the hits were well within the rules, while others were cause for supplemental discipline as the NHL continued to place added emphasis on preventing head injuries. After sorting through nine-plus months of game highlights, we present the 13 most bone-rattling hits of 2013:
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Gionta, the diminutive speedster, took a pretty heavy hit from Kulikov in front of the Panthers' bench and was driven along the dasher for about a foot or so before he went completely over it. He didn't get a warm reception, either. A Florida player decided to help Gionta out with a shove that sent him straight to the ice.
Dustin Byfuglien and B.J. Crombeen are big men. When they ended up in this race for the puck, there was little-to-no way the contest would end with a deft display of stickwork. Instead, going at full speed, Byfuglien (6'-5", 265 pounds) figured the easiest thing to do was just obliterate Crombeen (6'-2", 210) and he did.
Kesler caught Braun skating up along the boards with his head down and took advantage by laying a big, heavy shoulder right into the Sharks defenseman's chest. The result was a massive spill that probably left Braun wondering if anyone caught Kesler's license plate number.
After missing substantial time with an ACL injury, Beauchemin was a little rusty when he returned to the Ducks. Here his pass was intercepted by Blue Jackets forward Anisimov, but the Anaheim defenseman ended up with a chance to announce that he was back by delivering a textbook open-ice hit.
Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta is no stranger to the NHL Department of Player Safety: He's racked up 19 games' worth of suspensions, and his biggest and most recent came on this play when he gave Blue Jackets defenseman a forearm shiver to the head from a questionable angle, earning a 10-game ban. While the hit itself isn't necessarily big or bonecrushing, it's earns a spot on this list for the significance of the punishment that was handed out by the league and the Sabres, who waived Kaleta soon after the incident.
There's a reason this is called being "Kronwalled." Niklas Kronwall, the Red Wings' Swedish defenseman, is known as a hard--and sometimes questionable--hitter who isn't afraid to throw all of his weight into his checks. As Jamie McGinn found out, even when you see him coming, there's not much you can do.
Among the rare varieties of hits, the glass-breaker is one of the most crowd-pleasing. Bollig got the fans in Chicago on their feet when he sent Jets defenseman Pardy through the plexiglass. As some scrambled to get out of the way of the fallen partition, others felt the need to get in on the action, with one fan stealing Pardy's helmet and another giving him a beer shower.
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Selanne, the Finnish Flash, has long been a fan favorite who commands a certain level of respect as a veteran of 21 years in the league. Lightning defenseman Radko Gudas, a player who had only 22 NHL games of experience coming into the 2013-14 season, obviously wasn't impressed. When Selanne tried to get set up in the corner, he found himself unceremoniously planted on his butt, compliments of this big body check from Gudas.
How and when to hit another player has become one of hockey's biggest ongoing issues. Buffalo enforcer John Scott--a player the Sabres acquired specifically to help them handle the Bruins, their rough-and-tumble division rival--inspired another in a long line of debates with this hit that concussed Eriksson.
4. Brooks Orpik on Loui Eriksson (12/14/13)
Much like Kaleta's elbow to Jack Johnson, Orpik's hit makes this list not so much for being a brutal play, but for the supplementary discipline that resulted from it. Shawn Thornton's 15-game suspension for slew-footing and punching Orpik in retaliation is the second-largest ban ever handed out by Brendan Shanahan's crew. the Penguins defenseman hasn't been able to make it back to the rink since the incident due to lingering concussion issues while Thornton, who had a clean record despite being a well-respected enforcer, may become the first player to take a suspension appeal to an independent arbitrator. As in Scott's case, this hit raised more questions about violence in the new NHL.
A player being checked into a bench is pretty rare, but twice in the same game? When McDonagh did it to Perry during the same shift, he must have set some kind of record. Perry, a hard hitter in his own right, didn't take well to his extended introduction to the Rangers.
Cory Conacher is the definition of an undersized forward. Alex Ovechkin is a power forward in every sense of the word. When Conacher cut across the ice with his head down, the Capitals' superstar took a collision course and delivered a shot that made it look as if the Lightning Smurf had hit a cement pillar.
Pavel Datsyuk is the NHL's Magic Man. He's capable of making something out of nothing with his dazzling skating and stickhandling, and he often causes jaws to drop. Here, while he flashed his usual creativity and soft hands, he got so caught up in dangling his way around Alec Martinez that he never saw Drew Doughty, one of the league's premier hitters, coming his way. If Datsyuk could have heard footsteps, he might have avoided having his bell rung.