There's a fallacy that works its way into the discussion regarding each postseason and one that fans and media alike perpetuate. NHL teams, according to the narrative, need to be physically dominant in order to be successful past the regular season and almost certainly need to have such an advantage to even get to the postseason.
It's interesting to consider why this belief has been perpetuated the past few years, as only one of the pasts five Stanley Cup winners could truly be considered a physically dominant team. The Boston Bruins won the Cup in 2011 thanks to a monstrous performance by Tim Thomas in net as well as their physical bullying of the Vancouver Canucks.
After the Bruins' win, the hockey world started to consider that in order to be successful team's needed to be constructed with large and physically forceful players -- that this was the direction the NHL was headed. It's easy to see how the Bruins fit into this belief, since the team employees the largest defenseman in the NHL along with one heck of a physically imposing group of forwards and defensemen.
In fact, the Bruins were so physically intimidating that other teams in their division took steps to build their team to directly combat what Boston was putting on the ice.
In reality, the focus on "being physical" alone seems to mask what is really leading these teams to be successful. While it's true that being a big and physical team certainly gives these teams a very real advantage, the reality is that these teams have much, much more behind why they are winning and doing so consistently the past four or five years.
In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pittsburgh Penguins opened the series by apparently trying to be a better Boston Bruins team than the Boston Bruins themselves. Through two periods, the Penguins trailed the Bruins 1-0 yet were receiving high praise by the NBC broadcast team for just how focused they were on taking control of the game physically.
According to NHL's official stats, the Penguins out-hit the Bruins 34-19 and through the first half of the game the disparity was even larger. There was only one big problem with what happened in that game -- the Penguins lost 3-0 and were increasingly out-shot as the game progressed.
Game 2 was more of the same -- an embarrassing 6-1 loss for the Penguins on home ice while laying down 37 hits compared to 19 for the Bruins. Game 3, which was much closer when it came to official hits (46-34) also was a much closer affair -- a 2-1 win for Boston in the second overtime.
The first two games, especially the insanity of Game 2, are perfect examples of just how misguided a focus on "hitting" can be when it comes to actual success on the ice. While the Penguins were looking for every opportunity to put the Bruins on their backs on the ice, Boston was focused on dominating in every other aspect of the game on their way to two straight wins to open the series.
It's amazing how much attention the physical play of the Penguins received, although that's likely just a result of the lowest-denominator broadcast we get from NBC on most occasions. We were treated a highlight reel of the big hits the Penguins were laying out around the rink, and hearing praise for such an approach, yet the other aspects of what was actually happening in the game was ignored.
On Thursday night, the Los Angeles Kings seemed to be on the path to tying up the series against the Chicago Blackhawks -- leading 2-1 with less than two minutes remaining in the second period while dominating the physical battle. The Kings had won Game 3 with such an approach and it seemed as if Los Angeles was back on the path to playing like the team that had won the Cup in 2012.
Yet the Chicago Blackhawks used two goals, bookending the second intermission, to seize control of the game and seize almost complete control of the series. Yet the Kings had won the "physical battle" for most of the series; why then are they -- and the Penguins -- on the brink of elimination on the cusp of the Stanley Cup Final?
It's clear to anyone with only a modicum of knowledge about hockey that there is much more to success in the NHL than just being a physical team. Yet there seems to be an inordinate amount of attention paid to such a trait in a team. Look no further to the changes the Edmonton Oilers made mid-season, how adding bigger and 'meaner' players would provide the boost that team needed to get over the hump of a young, talented but inexperienced team.
The Oilers certainly became more physical and generated more hits -- but the actual success in the win column continued to elude them.
What is really plaguing the Pittsburgh Penguins, and to a lesser extent the Kings, is the inability to match the total team attack of their opponent. True, the Boston Bruins are a physically imposing team but that's not why their on the verge of their second Cup Final appearance in three years. The Bruins have perhaps the most complete hockey team in the NHL this season, a fact that has become more and more apparent as the postseason had progressed -- this is a team that is not just large but also incredibly skilled from the goalie on out to the forwards.
This is a team that is impeccably coached and is showing the Penguins that it's more than just a collection of talent that ultimately wins -- it's about approaching each game with a singular purpose and approach as a team.
While the Kings and Penguins were skating around the ice leading the stats column in hits, they were also leading the game when it came to turnovers. These were two teams that were struggling with the possession game -- the same type of game that had led to their success and the reason they were even in the conference finals -- and it's clear just how much each team has deviated from what truly made them a winning team.
The Penguins recovered in Game 3 to play a bit more of a complete game, combined with more reasonable goaltending by Tomas Vokoun. While Evgeni Malkin is still enjoying his magic disappearing act, the Penguins were a shot away from climbing right back into the series should they had won in that overtime instead of the Bruins.
The Kings only needed a strong finish to Game 4 to keep the series from getting out of hand; unfortunately, the Blackhawks found their next gear in the third period while the Kings managed just two measly shots in what should have been a desperate end to the game.
The Blackhawks didn't find success in that third period because they started putting the Kings down on the ice, the Blackhawks on that game thanks to a complete team performance from each and every player on that bench.
Being a physical team is certainly a factor in finding success in today's NHL; it's not just about skill anymore. Yet we're seeing this postseason that a balanced attack is what is ultimately important, a fact that each team struggling with this concept has actually found success with in the past.