Crunch Time: Playoff hockey means it's time to get physical
- They can inspire and intimidate, injure and excite. As the stakes get higher, the checks come harder. In the parlance of puckheads, "Playoff hockey" means one thing: Time to get physical.
This story appears in the May 1, 2017 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
As the bleu, blanc et rouge charged onto the ice and the Bell Centre filled with chants of “Go, Habs, go,” a booming, bass-heavy track introduced the Canadiens before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The thump-thump-thump of the drum carried a note of menace—as if welcoming gladiators to an ancient arena. Which wasn’t far from reality. As Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi recalls the opening four minutes, “They were killing us. We were killing them. I was running around like a madman.”
He wasn’t alone. By the first whistle at 3:43, league scorers in Montreal had logged 13 total hits from both teams, an unsustainable 210‑check pace. Madman Dan got his first official crack 11 seconds in, knocking center Andrew Shaw below the goal line before leveling two more Canadiens over a grueling two-minute shift. The loudest roar came when winger Tanner Glass collided with a neutral-zone wall—in the form of Montreal defenseman Jordie Benn and his brick-red beard. Moments later New York’s tough guy got his revenge, ramming defenseman Jeff Petry and leaving the boards wobbling like a palm tree in a hurricane. As with any truly rocking hit, Glass said later, “You can hear it. You can feel it. You want to get those licks.”
Welcome to the thundering, punishing rites of NHL spring. Or, in the game’s typically vanilla vernacular, playoff hockey. Definition? “Every hit’s taken, every hit’s given,” Benn says. “You’re going a hundred miles an hour every shift.” Translation? Amped on adrenaline, motivated by the desire to make a mental mark on opponents—not to mention some black-and-blue ones—at the start of a seven-game series, everyone starts hitting with greater frequency. “When it comes to playoff hockey,” says Scott Stevens, an assistant coach with the Wild and a legendary open-ice siege engine, “that’s what’s ramped up the most.”
Take it from 5' 9" jumping bean Paul Byron, Montreal’s hits leader with 26 in six games against the Rangers: “People save it in the regular season. It’s a lot easier to hit balls-out in the playoffs.”
No, hits and success aren’t necessarily linked. In today’s analytics-based view, checks are often seen as evidence of a team’s chasing the puck rather than possessing it. This postseason Pittsburgh, Anaheim and St. Louis each barely topped their 2016–17 averages and yet briskly advanced to the second round in five, four and five games, respectively. Still, through Sunday, all 16 conference quarterfinal participants had increased their per-game hit totals in the playoffs, four had doubled their checking frequency, and five were averaging 40-plus, a dozen more than the regular-season-leading Kings. “People think hitting can be overrated,” says Maple Leafs fourth-liner Matt Martin, the first round’s most prolific checker, with 40, “but they’ve never been hit before.”
Doc Emrick, the NBC broadcaster and narrator of the postseason, gets it. Every spring he tries to recognize the first big moment of physical contact. “You want to establish something,” he says, an explanation applicable to both him and the players. Half an hour after the puck dropped at the Bell Centre on April 12, Emrick went live in Pittsburgh for Game 1 of the Blue Jackets–Penguins series. For the first minute of play he outlined the tense history between the teams and prepared the national audience for the physicality to follow. “Can you hit a fast-moving target?” Emrick concluded. “It’ll be fun finding out.”
In Emrick’s eloquent world, hits can sound as if they’re happening in the aisles of The Home Depot (plastered, wallpapered) or in the booths at Denny’s (sandwiched, pancaked). He first used freight train to describe minor league journeyman John Paddock while calling Maine Mariners games in the early 1980s. “John was a guy who could score,” Emrick says, “but he’d also scare the heck out of people.” Once, upon seeing former Flyers defenseman Kjell Samuelsson smash someone into the glass, Emrick was reminded of a certain plush, orange, car-window decoration and delivered the delightful phrase, “Kjell put him up like a Garfield doll.”
The rule book definition is much less colorful. In 1997 the NHL began tracking hits as an official stat—“any legal contact that . . . exerts enough force as to prevent the player from controlling the puck, knocks him off the puck or significantly impedes his progress.” But like an umpire’s strike zone, the application is subjective and varies from scorer to scorer. This makes league-wide tracking somewhat unreliable—“Every building’s different,” one NHL captain says—but the number matters far less to players than, say, the abstract impact of getting hammered in open ice.
Consider the Capitals’ Kevin Shattenkirk. During the second round of his first NHL postseason, in 2011–12, the then St. Louis defenseman remembers facing steady doses of punishment from eventual Cup-champion Los Angeles. “And I didn’t react to it well,” Shattenkirk says. “It caused me to stop moving my feet, caused me to make poor plays. Instead of worrying about what play I was going to make, I was worrying about getting hit.” Our 32nd president feared only fear itself, but then, FDR never had an armored-up Dustin Brown bearing down on him at 20 mph in the Oval Office.
On the other end, a great check can galvanize. Late in the first period of Game 3 between the Capitals and Maple Leafs, on April 17, Toronto trailed 2–0 when 6-foot, 195-pound Leafs forward Nazem Kadri twice leveled 6' 3", 219-pound Brooks Orpik, Shattenkirk’s blueline partner, within 30 seconds. As the Air Canada Centre crowd roared, rookie superstar Auston Matthews scored the first goal in what became a 4–3 overtime win. “How the fans respond, how the team responds, that’s contagious,” says Orpik, who certainly would know. Back when he was with the Penguins, he memorably delivered four hits within 15 seconds in Game 3 of the 2008 Cup finals, leaving behind a flock of bruised Red Wings to thunderous roars. “If you can do it legally and stay responsible in terms of playing positionally,” Orpik says, “it usually has a trickle-down effect.”
In Game 2 of the 1976 Stanley Cup finals, Montreal defenseman Larry Robinson cleanly clobbered Broad Street Bullies–era forward Gary Dornhoefer so hard that the glass dislodged and a maintenance crew had to be summoned. “[It was] the kind that leaves behind the shuddering hint of something more to come,” famed Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden wrote in his book The Game. “He had delivered a message.” Sure enough, Montreal swept the series.
And in the rarest of instances a check—or at least the threat of one—can even unite adversaries. When the Devils’ Miles Wood was around 10 years old he sent a trading card to Capitals headquarters, care of his favorite player. Alex Ovechkin was a rookie in 2005–06, scoring steadily and flattening everything in his path. “Please sign this,” Wood recalls writing, “but if you don’t, first chance I get when I play in the NHL, I’m going to hit you!”
So it was that on Dec. 29, Ovechkin emerged from the Capitals’ dressing room at the Verizon Center, wearing a red bathrobe and a gap-toothed smile. He apologized for never replying to Wood and gave him an autographed photo that said: TAKE IT EASY TONIGHT!!!
The original rules of hockey make no mention of bodychecking, legal or otherwise, but players quickly figured out that it was far easier to regain possession if they threw around a little muscle. As the sport evolved, so too did hitting. The devastating hip check is an increasingly endangered species, not unlike enforcers or a Rangers power-play goal. A rewriting of the NHL’s Rule 48 in September 2013 outlawed “avoidable” head contact, which (generally) reduced the kind of open-ice crushers once glorified in Don Cherry’s old Rock ’Em, Sock ’Em VHS tapes.
“Guys would be coming across the middle, guys would leave their feet to hit somebody,” says Robinson, now San Jose’s director of player development. “Back then it wasn’t a penalty. It was more on the guy who got hit for keeping his head down. Now if you leave your feet and you [hit] the head, you’re suspended. Players are much more protected now than they were back then.”
This is by no means a bad thing, especially in the concussion-awareness age; in 2013, Hockey Canada banned bodychecking from its under-13 peewee levels, citing the desire to “put brain safety first.” But Orpik is right—developing proper, legal form is equally critical. “There’s hundreds of different little things that you have to calculate,” says Capitals forward Tom Wilson. “And it’s one of the fastest games on earth. You just have to trust your nature, how you’ve learned.”
Over time everyone develops his own style. Tanks like Martin or the Blues’ Ryan Reaves brake for no man, while the pint-sized Byron mostly relies on deception: “People probably look at me out of the corner of their eye and don’t even think about getting hit. Sometimes I sneak up on guys.” Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall, whose team missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, excels at pretending to retreat at the defensive blue line before stopping on an edge and powering into a rusher’s chest. “You take your eyes off him and try to look where the puck is,” says Pittsburgh’s Tom Kuhnhackl, “and all of a sudden he goes through you.”
It was largely self-preservation that inspired certain playmakers—notably Nashville’s P.K. Subban and San Jose’s Brent Burns—to adopt the backward approach of butt-checking, leading with their rumps. “The ass-first check is probably the hit that hurts you, the deliverer, the least,” Wilson says. But teams wear bruise-colored glasses in these high-stakes times, through which they see vulnerability as opportunity. After a puck struck his face during a game last month, San Jose center Logan Couture, the Sharks’ leading scorer in their run to the 2016 Stanley Cup finals, returned on April 12 for the playoffs with a mangled mouth, his teeth strung together with wires. The Oilers sent their sympathies by drilling Couture with 15 checks over their first-round series, which Edmonton won in six games. “You’re trying to make it hard on people, tire them out with contact,” Stevens says. “Hitting can turn a series around just like a goal can.”
Never have the various consequences of contact—inspiration, intimidation and injury—come together more powerfully than on May 26, 2000, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Flyers and the Devils. As Philadelphia center Eric Lindros entered the offensive zone by dancing left to right, Stevens cut across and knocked Lindros out with a shoulder to the jaw. Robinson, then New Jersey’s coach, remembers his players turning around on the bench to declare, “We’re going to win this thing,” which the Devils did 2–1. Lindros never played for the Flyers again.
In his current capacity for Minnesota, which succumbed last week to the Blues in five games, Stevens stresses timing and technique to his defensemen. Are teammates backchecking beside you, offering support? Is your stick extended toward the puck, to help send possession the other way? “The puck’s the most important thing,” Stevens says. “Then you finish your check.” The league has never been faster, and few things look more foolish than walloping thin air. Better to gap up than step up, in other words. “Going out there and looking for big hits,” Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist says, “that doesn’t work anymore.”
In taking a 3–0 series lead against Columbus, Hornqvist and the defending Stanley Cup champions benefited from what Blue Jackets forward Scott Hartnell suggested was hit fatigue. “As much as you want to hit them, I don’t think, well, obviously it’s not working,” he told The Columbus Dispatch. “Basically, all it does is tire you out. . . . We were running around a lot and maybe [getting] out of position.”
This also appeared to be the case in Game 3 at Madison Square Garden, a 3–1 Rangers loss in which the Blueshirts were credited with 41 hits but only attempted 21 shots on Montreal goaltender Carey Price. Later, during coach Alain Vigneault’s press conference, a reporter wondered if New York had strayed from its speed-and-skill strengths by prioritizing an uncharacteristically physical approach. Vigneault looked as if he’d been asked to deny that the Earth was round. His flat reply: “I would say that’s playoff hockey.”