A player cedes position at his peril. The Phoenix Coyotes were breaking in two-on-two against the Canadiens last December when Montreal defenseman Igor Ulanov, a one-dimensional hitter, went AWOL in search of someone to hit. Ulanov skated past the oncoming rush to chase down a Coyote, giving Phoenix a two-on-one. When he reached the bench, Ulanov and assistant coach Dave King argued so vehemently that Alain Vigneault had to tug on King's jacket to get him to stop. "It's a fine line," says Vigneault. "You want [big] hits because they can turn a game, but you have to be smart. We don't stress the crushing blow as much as we do taking a guy's hands away, separating him from the puck."
"Open-ice hitting is big-time risky, a one-in-a-thousand play," Calgary defenseman Cale Hulse says. "If you're looking to get those big hits all the time, there are going to be two-on-ones and three-on-twos heading the other way. The guys are so fast these days, and usually everybody's got his head up. Players like [Chicago Blackhawks center] Doug Gilmour, they get the puck and try to suck you in [to trying to hit them]. As soon as you come, they chip it by you, and they're gone."
The newly conservative approach to bodychecking has been reinforced by the NHL, which has cracked down on hitting from behind and has suspended players who leap to deliver a check. "I think there's starting to be a little leeriness about the big hit because of some of the suspensions that have followed," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff says. "I know Peca, after the hit on [Vancouver defenseman Mattias] Ohlund last year"—Peca was suspended for three games—"was a little leery. Let's be realistic. If you're going to have a big hit, your feet will probably leave the ice a little. If you time it wrong and leap at a guy, that's an automatic suspension."
But inevitably the great hits will rock on. Whenever a puck carrier has his head down, whenever a forward with more hubris than quickness tries to hurtle down the boards, somebody will nail him with a shot that makes the hitter tingle and the victim feel as though his right shoulder blade is on the left side of his body. The game changes, but its soul is eternal.
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