Physical hockey still lives

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:21 AM ET

Hockey the way it's meant to be played.

These days, everyone takes that to mean free-flowing, crisp passing and lots of skating. With the way the game is being called, if you can't play that way, your chances of winning are slim to none.

But the "new" rules don't prevent tough hockey or physical hockey. The rewards are magnified for those who can play with swiftness and skill, but the "new" rules don't penalize players who are willing to battle along the boards for a puck, take a hit, deliver a hit, check hard . . . as long as they do it within the rules.

Game 6 of the Buffalo-Philadelphia Eastern Conference quarter-final provided a perfect example.

Think Sabres and you think a young team who can skate like the wind and throw the puck around as if it's on a string. Yesterday, they took a 3-2 series lead with a 3-0 win. They scored three goals that would be the centrepiece of an ad campaign for the new NHL.

But ultimately that's not what won them the game.

"I think their tenacity and hunger, not their speed, controlled the game," said Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock. "Overall, this is the best game they've played in this series. They were very tenacious. They caused us to make soft plays with the puck at inopportune times.

"Their checking tenacity, not their speed controlled the tempo of the hockey game. We lost far too many board battles because of it. Never mind your skill, your speed. When it comes down to this level, this late in the series, that's what usually wins it for you."

Imagine that. Tenacity is still alive in the NHL.

With all the whining about the referees taking over the game, you'd think there was no longer the opportunity for the tough player.

Wrong.

Hitchcock was spot on. The Sabres won yesterday because they played a stronger physical game. They controlled the boards and the corners without taking penalties.

The Flyers trailed 2-0 when they went home. They got back into the series because they won the physical battles while keeping their penalties to a minimum. They won because their skilled players played their skill game.

This isn't nuclear physics, folks.

What is happening should have happened years ago. The game is allowing the players who are good at it -- be they diggers, grinders, checkers, playmakers or scorers -- to do what they do best.

We've seen what this game does for players like Brian Campbell and Tim Connolly.

Campbell struggled to find a spot in the league before the new NHL. Now he's found a spot, not just on the power play, but on a regular shift.

Connolly, the former Erie Otter, may be the NHL comeback player of the year. He's a magician with the puck. The changes have revitalized his game. He wouldn't have been able to do that carrying some gorilla who can't skate on his back.

"Even when you got the guy beat, you couldn't get away," he said. "Also going up the ice without the puck, there was clutching and grabbing. You used to be able to pull a guy all the way up the ice on a backcheck. Now you can't. That opens up the game for the guy with the puck and the guy without the puck."

It's also better for the grinder and checker with skills and the smarts to play within the rules. The smaller player can do it because he doesn't have to worry about someone getting in his way or some cement-head ripping his head off when he's going into the corner. The guy willing to hit can still do so, as long as he does it legally. The team that works hard is still rewarded.

A skilled Buffalo team proved it -- with hockey the way it's meant to be played.


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