COLUMBUS – When a series has all the makings of being a long one, as does this one between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Boston Bruins, a big hit serves a dual purpose. Of course, it knocks the opponent off the puck. But it also wears him down, just a little, and that could reap rewards when you get to Games 6 and 7.
And when you’re the fresher team in a series, as the Blue Jackets are after a first-round sweep, you take the physical advantage when it’s presented to you. Contrary to what you might think, neither the Bruins or the Blue Jackets is an inordinately large or physical team. Boston is not your father’s Big Bad Bruins, nor is Columbus the Black and Blue Jackets. But the latter is hoping that an emphasis on finishing checks and playing the body tilts the battle of attrition in its favor.
“It’s men versus boys and when you’re physical, it separates the two,” said Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno. “It shows you it’s a man’s game and that’s what makes it fun.”
There were a total of 91 hits in Saturday’s double-overtime victory for the Blue Jackets in Game 2 – 49 by the Blue Jackets and 42 by the Bruins. Overall, through the first two games, the Blue Jackets have outhit the Bruins by an 89-73 margin, with Boone Jenner leading the way for both teams with 11 hits in the series. Chris Wagner and Joakim Nordstrom led the way for the Bruins with nine each. Over the course of the playoffs as a whole, the Bruins and Blue Jackets have about the same number of hits per game, with Columbus averaging 34.3 and the Bruins 33.8. In terms of size, the two teams are almost identical with Columbus averaging just a touch over 6-foot-1 and 196 pounds, while the Bruins average 6-foot-1 and 197 pounds. None of those statistics is anywhere near the top of the NHL and neither team has a player in the top 10 in hits in the postseason.
Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara set a tone with a big hit on Riley Nash in Game 1 and Connor Clifton did the same with one on Oliver Bjorkstrand. Even though it hasn’t been a particularly bruising series, neither team is backing away from situations where there might be contact.
“In the playoffs, that’s how you break teams down,” Foligno said. “That’s what we try to do. It eventually breaks someone down and we have to find a way to fight through that. We’re comfortable being hit, and we’re just as comfortable hitting. We see a couple of guys getting hit to make plays on our team and that’s what you’re going to need this time of year. I think we’re really comfortable in those kinds of games.”
Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones played by far the most minutes of any player in Game 2 – and we mean by far, since his 38:01 was almost five minutes more than the next highest player – and he had five hits in that game to go along with the three he had in Game 1. The teams have played only two games in this series, but they’ve played 158 minutes and 57 seconds of hockey, which is the equivalent more than two and a half games. And with so little separating the two teams, there could be a lot more extra hockey played in this series. So wearing down your opponent could be a key factor.
“Finishing your checks or getting hits early in a game may not seem like a big deal, but over a series, I think it is a big deal,” Jones said. “(The Bruins) understand that because they’ve been in that situation before. We understand that as well and that’s definitely at the top of our list. I think it’s part of both teams’ identities to play hard, physical, heavy hockey and that’s what you’re seeing.”
As far as the toll it takes on your body, that’s just part of life as an NHL player. “The aches and pains are part of it,” Foligno said. “I’ve always said I’ve never felt good since Game 1 of my career. You just learn to play through that stuff.”
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