Big, physical hockey as important as ever in Stanley Cup Playoffs

With the game wrapped up, Daniel Winnik decides to drop the gloves with Brandon Tanev. The Winnipeg Jets held a 4-1 lead at the time.

ST. PAUL, Minnesota — “Big and good beats small and good,” the old hockey scout said. “Every time.”

We all have these maxims in the back of our heads, whatever our vocation. The bricks and mortar of a career collected over the years, one piece of advice at a time.

Measure twice, cut once. If you’re not five minutes early you’re five minutes late. Or this old gem from one of our favourites, former Winnipeg Jets coach Tommy McVie:

“There are two places you never make a drop pass,” McVie will tell you. “At home, and on the road.”

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Of course, some of these are time sensitive. Today, we like drop passes more than Toe Blake did back in the Original Six.

Others, as the big, good Winnipeg Jets pound their way through this first round series against Minnesota, appear to withstand the test of time.

Does big and good still beat small and good? Even in today’s National Hockey League?

“I’ve always had big teams and we’ve always made the playoffs,” said Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau. “I think it’s a good thing to have a big team.”

The game has reached an awkward place, and we’re seeing it played out in Round 1 across the NHL, where hits totals after each game come in at double the number we see in the regular season. Regular season hockey is becoming less physical by the season, as the “blow-up hit” becomes a thing of the past for a myriad of reasons: the increasing speed of the game; concussions; today’s salaries, and the role of the Player Safety Department.

Yet when the games really count in April, May and June, the physical ante gets raised. At this time of year, it’s good to be big again.

“Well, fast is still primary,” began Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “We’d all prefer six-foot-five and could skate like Nik Ehlers, but you can be five-foot-11, 170 pounds (now), and if you can skate you can play. So, it’s speed first, (but) if you can get a big man that can move, there’s only one or two more pieces left before he’s an All Star.”

A year ago the Edmonton Oilers beefed up with players like Pat Maroon, Milan Lucic and Zack Kassian, and went two rounds deep. This season things went wrong, and the Oilers are deemed two big and slow. They didn’t make it through the regular season to the playoffs, where they could use that size.

Winnipeg, meanwhile is every bit as big or bigger than Edmonton was, and they are a terror with their mix of speed and size. Big, strong players like 260-pound Dustin Byfuglien and 6-foot-5 Blake Wheeler, a giant of a man who spins on a dime coming out of the corner like a guy half his size.

Puck protection is in vogue, and there isn’t a theory alive that would understate size and strength in that game. And watching the Jets dominate a team like Minnesota — which is by no means small — it’s a combination of size and speed that the Wild just can not handle thus far.

“Whether you’re small or big, you have to be on the puck. Force their team to make plays they don’t wan’t to make,” said young Jets centreman Adam Lowry, an absolute stud at six-foot-5, 210 pounds, who has checked Eric Staal into oblivion through two games. “It certainly helps to have a captain (Wheeler) who is 6-5 and can really fly, and your No. 1 centreman (Mark Scheifele) is 6-3. Guys with size, but who can play.”

The question becomes, as the changing game open its doors to smaller, faster players like Jared Spurgeon or the lightning fast Ehlers, will players the size of Staal, Wheeler, Byfuglien and Charlie Coyle be able to skate fast enough to keep pace?

It’s great to be built for the playoffs. But not if you don’t get there.

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“There’s a lot more board work in the playoffs,” said Boudreau. “It’s not rush against rush, so a big man and a strong man has to be good along the boards.”

We’ll give the last word to Maurice, whose team has poured 40 shots per game at Minnesota, while the Wild have just 37 shots on goal in the series.

In 2018, is my old scout still correct? Does big and good beat small and good?

“I don’t think you have a whole team of one,” Maurice surmised. “We don’t talk about hitting in our room. We don’t talk about playing a physical game. We have men that finish their checks.

“They’re big and that’s part of who they are.”


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