It’s been a solid decade since fisticuffs played a prominent role in the quest for Lord Stanley’s chalice. Instead the NHL playoffs have become a tightly wound drum of tension, no longer released through the usual bare-knuckled route, but rather the ever increasing stick-in-the-mush epidemic the league has seen surface this past year. Ice time is the all-important factor in the playoffs, with teams needing their personnel in the rink rather than in the box, tending to their dented digits. Today’s intimidation is acheived not through heavyweight showdowns, but rather through bone-crunching bodychecks and strategically placed elbows of fortune. To this end, the blueliners are front and center in terms of their team’s eventual success: Those that hit will advance, those that are hit will golf.
A quintet of crunchers have led their clubs through the first two rounds of playoff action and figure to continue taking point until either elation or elimination. Adam Foote has been the Avalanche’s heart and soul, laying thump after thump on the best each night’s opposition has to offer, the result being a 9-1 record for Colorado through their first 10 postseason games. True to form, Foote layed a few jaw-jacking elbows to Dallas’s Joe Niewendyuk in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, slowing down the Star scorer and leading his Avs to the road shutout and an early series lead. Dallas’s chances are strongly tied to their own backguard behemoth, Darien Hatcher, who makes a living burying guys alive in the corners. He’ll have to be at top physical form and cast an imposing presence shift after shift to thwart the surging Avalanche.
In the Eastern Conference, the Flyers’ chief intimidators are those veteran reverberators Luke Richardson and Chris Therien. These Flyer bookends have been hitting hard all season, and their success at keeping the cage clear in front of rookie goalie Brian Boucher will be a key to advancing. Conversely, Devil damager Scott Stevens has been the man in New Jersey’s cockpit, forging the way with punishing neutral zone hits. Late in the series-deciding Game 6 against Toronto, a perfectly timed Stevens bomb sent Leaf lugnut Tie Domi head over heels at the blue line, putting an exclamation point at the end of a physically dominating series win for the Devils. Stevens also left his mark in Game 1 of the conference finals against Philly, repeatedly ramming Flyer forward Mark Recchi in the neutral zone and helping bottle up the Flyers’ offensive efforts in a 4-1 Devil win.
So be on the lookout for a blur between the blue lines, a looming shadow descending into the corners, a head on a swivel looking for someone to thump—that guy will most likely be hoisting the Cup with a toothless grin come season’s end. Until next time, see ya in the sin bin!
The playoffs’ best battles to date:
APRIL 13 Jyri Slegr (PIT) vs. Richard Zednik (WASH)
The Pens and Caps throw a pair of flyweights into the ice ring late in Game 1 of their first-round playoff skirmish. Sticks up high lead to gloves down low as they battle in tight and trade rabbit punches—much to the crowd’s delight.
APRIL 15 Keith Carney (PHO) vs. Jon Klemm (COL)
Coyote Carney leads the charge of frustrated Phoenix players after swallowing another shellacking at the hands of the Avs. Klemm takes the challenge near the end of regulation, with each brawler landing a punch before both hit the deck.
APRIL 16 Dave Manson (DAL) vs. Sean Brown (EDM)
A heavy hit in the neutral zone leads to this main event between two tough blue-liners. They end up throwing haymakers galore in a spirited soiree that leaves Manson bloodied and the Edmonton faithful screaming for more.
APRIL 16 Jamie Pushor (DAL) vs. Bill Guerin (EDM)
The clock expires, but not the action! After a lively Oilers win, the boys keep it going down in the corner, with Guerin and Pushor eventually matching knuckle knocks. Both battlers end up bruised and bent after this dustup.
APRIL 19 Kevyn Adams (TOR) vs. Shaun Van Allen (OTT)
The veteran Van Allen has enough and sends a two-fisted message to Adams’s head as they pair off in front of the cage and engage one another in a frantic fracas.
APRIL 23 Tyson Nash (STL) vs. Jeff Norton (SJ)
A heavy hit behind the net by Nash gets Norton’s ire up. He responds by jumping on Nash sans gloves and throwing a few fists late in a Blues blowout.
APRIL 23 Tyson Nash (STL) vs. Ronnie Stern (SJ)
The pesky Nash is involved here again, but not by choice as Stern corners him in front of the benches and sends a message that reads, “See ya in Game 7, Tyson!”
APRIL 29 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
In the playoffs, one-sided scores mean rising hostilities, and Game 2 proves no exception as a grand melee erupts between these intrastate rivals. When the dust finally clears, it’s SRO in the sin bin—Tyler Wright, Bob Boughner, Rene Corbet, and Matthew Barnaby for the Pens and Rick Tocchet, Luke Richardson, and Craig Berube paying the price for the Flyers.
MAY 8 Darcy Tucker (TOR) vs. Patrick Elias (NJ)
It’s countdown time on the Leafs’ season as Tucker goes looking for anyone in Devil red, finding the light-of-fist Elias in the corner, and jumping him to let off some steam.
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