One of the most impressive elements of the Canucks’ game one victory over the was their physical play. After finishing 20th in the NHL in hits in the regular season, averaging 21.85 hits/game, the Canucks came flying off the bench like they were The Hart Foundation, finishing the night with 47 hits. Alex Edler and Maxim Lapierre played the roles of “The Hitman” and “The Anvil” respectively, leading the way with 15 combined hits, many of the genus holy jumpin’. This was a little surprising: after all, Edler is coming off mid-season back surgery and Maxim Lapierre seemed to lack the advertised aggravation after being traded to Vancouver at the deadline. The Canucks’ generosity with their hits, their physical philanthropy if you will, received an enthusiastic response from the Rogers Arena crowd and no response from the Chicago Blackhawks, much to Joel Quenneville’s chagrin. But is this the start of a larger trend or just a one-game anomaly?
One year ago the Blackhawks’ frightening combination of speediness and hittiness was lethal. The poster boy for this in the playoffs was Dustin Byfuglien, the 6’5″ 265 lb monster of a man who could, horror of horrors, skate. Much was made of the eyesight-blocking capabilities of his rear end, but he was a physical force all over the ice, leading the postseason with an astonishing 99 hits in 22 games. This is yet another area where his absence leaves a gaping hole in the Blackhawks’ line-up. His combination of size, speed, and scoring touch is not easily replaced.
Of course, it wasn’t just Byfuglien that the Blackhawks lost. Last postseason, Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager provided 42 hits each, while Brent Sopel and Kris Versteeg dished out 23 and 25 respectively. Toss in the combined efforts of Adam Burish and John Madden with 23 and you have a total 254 of the Blackhawks’ 598 postseason hits that are now missing from the lineup. Those 7 players were ostensibly replaced by Michael Frolik, Viktor Stalberg, Chris Campoli, Ryan Johnson, Jake Dowell, Ben Smith, and Nick Leddy in game one for the Blackhawks. Both Stalberg and Dowell topped 100 hits this season, while Campoli came just short with 99; they combined for a grand total of 3 hits against the Canucks. Instead, Michael Frolik led the team with 6 hits. Not a very intimidating figure, that Frolik.
Surprisingly, the Blackhawks actually had more hits this season than in 2009-10. The Blackhawks tallied 1824 hits this year compared to 1555 last year. While it would seem that the departure of Byfuglien, Ladd, Eager, Sopel, Versteeg, Burish, and Madden would lead to a dropoff in total hits, it hasn’t been the case. That septet combined for 523 hits in 468 games, averaging 1.12 hits/game. Their “replacements,” Frolik, Stalberg, Campoli, Johnson, Dowell, Smith, and Leddy tallied 424 hits in 399 games, averaging 1.06 hits/game, with some of those hits recorded with other teams. Toss in John Scott’s 60 hits in 40 games from this season, however, and the average jumps up to 1.21 hits/game. John Scott might slot into the lineup tonight as a forward, which would bump up the hittiness quotient of the Blackhawks while simultaneously dropping the skilliness (Side note: the Blackhawks’ Skilleness took a dive when they traded Jack Skille to Florida). In any case, the Blackhawks overall hit totals for the regular season went up by 18.3%.
What the Blackhawks don’t seem to have, however, is a player like Byfuglien, who can elevate his physical play for the playoffs. The Byfuglienian One had 215 hits during the 2009-10 regular season, averaging 2.62 hits/game, already an impressive total that put him in the top 15 in hits in the league. He proceeded to bump his average up by almost 2 hits, registering 4.5 hits/game on his way to Conn Smythe consideration. Consider, then, the Canucks: both Alex Edler and Maxim Lapierre made statements in game one that they were stepping up their physical play. The Canucks’s hit-leader, Jannik Hansen, chipped in 5 hits of his own, more than twice his regular season average. Do the Blackhawks have the right players to respond? Brouwer is coming off shoulder surgery, Bickell is a below-average skater, Kopecky is injured, and Seabrook managed just 1 paltry hit on Thursday. Their regular season hit totals suggest they are capable, but their personnel might not be able to manage it.
The Blackhawks average hits/game jumped from 18.96 in the 2009-10 regular season to 27.18 in the postseason. They bumped their regular season average up to 22.24 hits/game this year and had only 21 hits in game one. Vancouver, meanwhile, averaged 21.84 hits/game this season and more than doubled that total in game one. If the dearth of star-powered scoring continues in this series, look for the physical play to be the story. If Vancouver has their way, it will be.
Tags: Blackhawks, Canucks, Edler, featured, hittiness, NHL playoffs, playoffs