BOSTON – As the NHL playoffs wind down and referees put away their whistles, the hit parade is in full gear.
The Chicago Blackhawks led the battle of hits in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, edging the Boston Bruins 61 to 59 in a thrilling matchup that went to triple overtime. In Game 2, the Bruins outhit the Hawks 50-34 in single OT en route to tying the series at one game apiece.
The value of the statistic is debatable. Critics say judging a hit is subjective and depends on who does the counting and where.
But it is a tempting gauge when the speed of the stylish Blackhawks is matched against the grinding Bruins. There is no shortage of skill and speed in the yellow and black, but there is a touch of a blunt instrument to Boston at times as Milan Lucic cruises the ice like a great white shark and Zdeno Chara uses his long stick to harpoon the puck—or the player carrying it.
Combine that with an Energizer Bunny work ethic and the Bruins can leave a mark.
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If anything, the Maple Leafs helped wake up the Jekyll-and-Hyde Bruins in a physical seven-game first-round series that saw Toronto outhit Boston 351-290.
Bruins defenceman Torey Krug believes the hitting in Saturday’s Game 2 helped turn the tide against Chicago.
“I think it’s fair to say they were feeling pretty good about themselves after the first period and we were a little upset with how we played,” Krug said Sunday as the series switched to Boston for Game 3 on Monday and Game 4 on Wednesday. “Just getting a couple of those body checks early in the period. You saw (Bruins defenceman) Johnny Boychuk, he had a few big hits and that was really important for us, especially the way they had us clamped down in our own zone.
“You see a guy with a big hit and, all of a sudden, things change a little bit so we started taking care of the puck and getting our forecheck going and everything turned from there.”
On the other side, the Blackhawks downplayed the impact of the increased physical play.
“We know they have some guys that are playing physical,” Chicago defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson said Sunday. “You just try to keep your head up, not to get hit too hard. But it’s something I’m used to. I don’t really think about that too much.”
Chicago’s players say there is more to winning the physical battle than just finishing checks.
“I don’t really think a whole lot about it,” Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith said of the hit count. “I definitely think being physical is something that you need to have. But whether they get more hits, we get more hits, I don’t go and look at that stat at the end of the game.
“I think we want to be physical, but also more than anything we want to be hard to play against. That’s being hard in the puck areas, trying to win those 1-on-1 puck battles, races for the puck.
“Boston’s got a physical team. We’ve played physical teams in Los Angeles, as well. I think for us it’s about being strong 1-on-1 with the puck, trying to be tough to get the puck.”
Although his players might ignore it, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville clearly looks at the stat sheet. While he acknowledges the Blackhawks have often trailed in the hits category, Quenneville also sees the bigger picture.
“I think we’ve got to be harder to play against than we were (Saturday),” he said. “Game 1 is more representative of how we have to play to be successful. As long as we are not deterred in where we have to travel to be successful is something we’ll talk about.
“L.A. (which Chicago beat in the Western Conference final) is a physical team. Boston, they’re a big team. At the same time we can’t get distracted knowing if we get outhit, it makes a difference. Our guys have to travel, whether it’s to the net or first to pucks, we’ve got to be there.”
The talk Sunday in the Chicago camp was about getting back to basics.
“I think the simpler we play it, the more of a direct approach, it can play in our favour,” said Quenneville, whose team is 0-3 in Game 3 during these playoffs.