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Playoff intensity best seen in increased hitting

Tampa Bay, San Jose didn't hit much in regular season but got physical in postseason

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings have been built in similar fashions. They rely on speed, passing and playmaking. They have players who can deliver a big, physical check like the Red Wings' Niklas Kronwall or the Lightning's Brian Boyle, but mainly these teams are built to win by moving the puck and their bodies quick enough to avoid getting hit.

Why then was their series in the Eastern Conference First Round so physical? Why was it so nasty?

"When you're in the playoffs and all the teams are on the same playing field, same travel schedules, plus you magnify the games and raise the stakes, you see this [physicality and nastiness]," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "To me, it's just a natural occurrence."

It has happened naturally through the playoffs so far. It typically does.

Hitting, by virtue of what is evident in terms of momentum and what is documented as a hit by the off-ice officials in each arena, is up almost 43.6 percent from the regular season. There were 46.5 documented hits per game in the regular season; there have been 66.81 documented hits through 48 playoff games.

There were 66.75 documented hits per game in the 2015 playoffs, up from 49.9 per game during the 2014-15 regular season.

However, some people who are watching closely, either from home or the bench, are of the opinion that the 2016 playoffs seem more physical and nastier than last season.

Video: DET@TBL, Gm5: DeKeyser puts a check on Killorn

"I think the intensity level, where guys are finishing checks and having harder confrontations, is up," New Jersey Devils coach John Hynes said. "There have been more hits with physicality and speed and they've been at a high, high level. I'd say higher than other playoffs in the past, and certainly than the regular season. It does stick out. The speed and the checking always stick out in the playoffs, but the physicality has definitely stood out too."

Hynes didn't have the stats in front of him and only knew about them when he was told, but many coaches tend to question the hit stat in general.

"I still don't have a complete gauge on what's considered a hit and what is not," Cooper said.

A lot of coaches and executives tend to feel the same way, which is why it's not a metric they often use to judge their team. That makes sense considering more often than not if you're on the right side of the hits stat you're on the wrong side of the puck, which means you're more likely to be on the wrong side of the scoreboard.

"The game is about puck possession," said former Philadelphia Flyers coach Craig Berube, who has been an analyst for NHL.com during the playoffs. "You have to have the puck and you have to keep the puck. If you're doing a good job with that, you're not going to have as many hits."

Nobody can debate that. But even the better puck-possession teams in the League brought far more physicality in the first round than they did in the regular season.

The Chicago Blackhawks averaged 29.4 hits per game in their seven-game first-round series against the St. Louis Blues after averaging a League-low 16.9 hits per game in the regular season. It didn't help them win the series, but nobody is going to say the Blackhawks lost because they got into a physical battle with the Blues.

Video: ANA@NSH, Gm6: Gaustad checks Lindholm into the boards

"You're playing the Blues, you've got to get involved or you're going to get run out of the building," Berube said. "They didn't overdo it, but they did it when they had to do it."

The same can be said of the San Jose Sharks, who averaged 35.2 hits per game in their five-game series win against the typically physical Los Angeles Kings. San Jose averaged 20.6 hits per game in the regular season.

The Lightning averaged 29.5 hits per game against the Red Wings after averaging 20.5 hits per game in the regular season. It was part of the reason why they won the series in five games.

"It's a mindset," Cooper said. "It's that competitive nature to win. And if throwing a body check or blocking shots is going to help you win a game, the boys are going to do it."

That they've been doing it a lot in the playoffs so far shouldn't really be surprising because of the intensity and the higher stakes. But a series like the one between Detroit and Tampa Bay, and teams like Chicago and San Jose, it certainly raised eyebrows across the League because the hits just kept on coming. And that's normally not the case with them.

"To me, the first round was very hard and physical, in every series," Berube said. "It was more than I've seen in the past."

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