The modus operandi of “back in the day” hockey was if you couldn’t beat ‘em, beat ‘em up.
That was then and this is now; now being the “new” NHL.
In today’s 60-minute hockey game, speed, skill and talent are the prevalent forces that make the difference between victory and defeat. Physicality–or outright goonism–only allows said forces to flourish.
Then look no further than the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins’ two most recent games against the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs, respectively.
Against both, the flightless birds were supposed to be squashed and mangled.
Instead, they waddled away unscathed and with four points, proving that cheap shots, late hits and vicious checks only make for effective YouTube videos.
After having been eliminated from playoff contention in consecutive seasons, the Philadelphia Flyers put all its eggs in the Chris Pronger basket during the offseason, trading skilled mobile defenseman Luca Sbisa and sniper Joffrey Lupul–along with two first-round picks–in the process.
The thinking was that Pronger would provide the Flyers with the necessary defensive and physical edge to stymie Pittsburgh’s two-headed monster, featuring Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
How did Pittsburgh respond?
Oh, it just put up five goals from five different players, while not allowing Philadelphia’s dirty tactics to interfere.
The Pronger Method trails Pittsburgh’s adherence to the modern game, 1-0.
Meanwhile, Toronto was less forthcoming with its Beat Pittsburgh At All Costs campaign, but bolstered its defense either way.
Against the Penguins, the Leafs tried to get physical.
Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill dropped their gloves and took runs at Penguins players all night.
You’d think they’d get the point after Pittsburgh scored on its first three attempts on the power-play, right?
General manager Brian Burke’s We’re Gonna Be Tough Method trails Pittsburgh’s adherence to the modern game, 1-0.
The bottom line is simple: physicality is only effective when the right amount of skill surrounds it, much like skill, speed and talent is only effective when the right amount of physicality stands nearby.
Otherwise, in and of themselves, both are as valuable as a stained article of clothing when you’ve thrown the receipt away.
Did Pittsburgh skate all over either team? No.
Players like Craig Adams, Mike Rupp and Eric Godard dropped their gloves and made their physical presence be felt; an overall team toughness surfaced, too.
That opened up the avenues through which the talent sashayed.
Until teams recognize the recipe for success in the “new” NHL, their Stanley Cup Championship meal dreams will continue to come out undercooked.