If Wednesday’s Game 1 looked rough, that’s because it was. A couple of hits by Blues forwards Robby Fabbri and Troy Brouwer summed up the edge the Blues were playing with.
That edge amounted to a 17-hit advantage for the Blues at the time of David Backes’ overtime winner and a 41-hit night for St. Louis. So, the only assumption was that Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock would be pleased with his club’s level of physicality. You know what they say about assumptions.
“We are going to have to go up way bigger,” Hitchcock said following the victory on Wednesday. “We had 41 hits and we are going to have to get it into the 70s if we expect to win.”
The sound following that statement was the media horde playing back their recorders to confirm a number that seemed too large to be legitimate.
“We are going to need it,” said Hitchcock. “We have to be more physical on the forecheck. We spent a little too much time in the second half of (Game 1) reading too much rather than getting in on it.”
Most who heard what Hitchcock had said were scratching their heads. Even Blackhawks personnel were questioning the analysis.
“I’m not sure about that comment,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said Thursday. “I hope there’s some validity to it. I hope he tries to go to 70; it means we got the puck the whole (game).”
But players are on board with the idea of upping the physical level.
“It’s something that we definitely have to be conscious of,” said forward Troy Brouwer, whose five hits led the Blues in Game 1. Teammates Scottie Upshall and Ryan Reaves tied with Brouwer. “We have to make sure that we are trying to take the time and space away, first and foremost but when it comes to physical play you can’t pass up opportunities to finish your checks but you also can’t go out of your way to finish checks because they are such good players and they will find players behind you that can create opportunities.”
While Hitchcock wants his team to up its physical play, spectators around the league are more concerned with the team’s lack of offensive chances in the first game. The Blues have been accused of sacrificing offense for hits in each of their last two first round exits but Hitchcock says he wants the two to go hand-in-hand, as they have all season. His explanation on Thursday clarified his point.
“Some people term it different and see it different,” said Hitchcock. “It’s not just running into people but it’s playing through the checking. That is the element of the game we have to get better at. We have to play through the checking better than we did in the first game and the body contact will come.”
The idea is not to coerce Blackhawks players into a shell; that doesn’t happen at this time of year. Hitchcock says the checking, if done at a high enough level, will lead to more offense and that is the priority.
“Any time you get licks on defensemen it’s good,” said Hitchcock. “You are trying to wear people down, make them make mistakes. It’s not about running after people, it’s just this time of year everybody checks and for two months everybody finishes their checks.
“Your hope is that they push it into areas you know is going to lead into turnovers. That’s all it is. If you think this time of year body contact is going to make a guy scared or petrified or bail out, it’s not going to happen. Not when you get to be a playoff team. But it might force a player to put a puck in a bad area and that is what you are looking for. That’s what we meant yesterday is we didn’t play through the checks as best we can to create turnovers.”
The Blackhawks are a prime example of this style of play, according to Hitchcock. The pressure they put on opponents with their physical play often leads to turnovers. A lot of times, those giveaways turn into goals.
“It’s maybe the little advantage you get by forcing a mistake when a player thinks he is going to get hit and he pushes the puck in the wrong spot,” said Hitchcock.
But there are other reasons for bringing a more physical game. It’s often said that the effects of hits early in the series can be seen at critical moments later in the round. The nature of a refined playoff style is already grueling and targeting players like the Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane with a physical barrage may lessen their impact in key moments.
“It’s no secret that they have a ton of skill,” said Blues captain David Backes. “If you give them room and time and space, they are going to exploit your defensive structure. We have to lean on them and make them earn every inch that they get. If we do that, we are going to like the result.”
Brouwer, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, said the effects of combating a physical opponent can be more than just a little pesty as the games go on.
“I played a series last year against the Islanders and that was a very physical series, probably the most physical that I have ever played,” Brouwer said. The forward was referencing his time with the Washington Capitals. “It does take a toll on your body night in and night out when you are getting hits. Things can go wrong with your body so it’s something that we have to key on and stay on but it’s not our complete focus. We have to make sure that we are playing good, structured hockey and the physical play will come with that.”
The Blues were middle of the pack in hits during the regular season, averaging 23.6 hits per game, but if checking will create offense, the players are going to have to up the ante. After all, it’s unlikely that another 1-0 game will go in the Blues’ favor or that they’ll be able to rely on overtime victories.
“We are not going to win all of the overtime games,” said Hitchcock. “They usually break even in the series.”
Hitchcock likes the Blues chances if they up their physical play but it comes down to more than just bone-crunching hits. The players will have to find a way to put into place one of the hardest consistencies to establish, which is playing through opponents, not around them.
“A lot of our offense is created by checking,” said Hitchcock. “We create turnovers and odd man rushes because of it. We didn’t do enough of that. We are going to have to create more offense and the way we do it is play through them."