“Playing the body” is more than just trying to blow your opponent to pieces.
It’s a valuable tool meant to help separate your opponent from the puck, eliminate scoring chances against and, sure, in some cases, intimidate.
Though we still see plenty of Happy Gilmore-esque “Don’t you ever touch my puck!” style hits, some players have learned the value of separating a guy from the puck before they get their face smeared into the glass.
It’s essentially the T.J. Oshie Special and, when utilized correctly, can leave you all kinds of time and space to make good decisions.
When two players are racing after a loose puck in the corner, the majority of the time the one player gets to it first, the other guy hits him, then a battle for the biscuit ensues.
It’s a tough call when you’re racing towards a free puck - do you let your opponent get there before you, have first touch of the puck and take the hit (seems more appealing) or beat him there, take the hit yourself and have the first shot at making a play?
Obviously, coaches want to see you get to the puck first and “take the hit to make the play,” as the old hockey adage goes. And for sure, it’s the right thing to do. It gives you the opportunity to move the puck in the direction of your choosing, assuming you don’t get hit so hard you end up on your backside. It’s tough to convince yourself to get smoked for the good of your team, but at the NHL level, the majority of guys who won’t do it have long since been weeded out.
But with the Oshie method, you don’t have to get blasted - it just involves a little deception.
The trick here is to keep skating like you’re willing to get to the puck first and take the hit. Smart players used to work to get themselves against the glass here (as opposed to coasting), so their opponent would bounce off them and they wouldn’t have to deal with the extra feet of separation between them and the boards that can be so dangerous.
Oshie is particularly adept at acting like he doesn’t know his opponent is there or that he’s going to go in and take that hit up against the glass.
You have to keep your feet moving to make it look like that’s the plan, but prepare to plant your skates nice and early. Before you approach the boards, you dig in, turn back and land a stiff shoulder into the chest of the guy who’s all excited to get a free shot on you.
Given the direction you’re moving, you can rarely generate enough force to blow the guy up and since it usually appears to be minor, if not incidental contact, you almost never get an interference call. It’s right on the line between clean and dirty, but definitely in the category of “effective,” as contact rarely comes that early.
Oshie popped Zdeno Chara so hard doing this last week that he sat the big giant down, which isn’t an easy feat unless you catch him off guard. This move is prone to accomplishing that against most defenders.
Keep in mind, you have to be a sturdy skater to do this or you can end up with a broken neck, but pros all skate well enough to deal with this contact. It also helps to be made of dense black matter, as Oshie appears to be.
You’ll usually carry on into the boards, of course, but given that your opponent will be way off balance (since he was preparing to give a hit, not take one), you’ve created the window necessary to not just move the puck, but take control of it.
I’ve played with and against a number of players who used early (interference-like) contact, but the best that I’ve seen are Oshie, his linemate David Backes and Rod Pelley of the New Jersey Devils. You just never knew when you were going to eat their shoulder, whether you had the puck or not.
Keep your eyes peeled for contact when neither player has the puck, especially those hits initiated by the player who used to be the one getting hit. It’s being used more and more (as guys get bigger and faster, putting yourself on a tee gets less appealing) and makes for some interesting jockeying for position in corners around the NHL.
Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. Justin will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com. Follow Justin on Twitter.