It’s a conventional wisdom that makes sense in hockey, especially in an age where seemingly every action on the ice is documented to a granular level with advanced metrics.
If you have a lot of hits, you probably don’t have the puck a lot.
After all, it’s impossible to register a hit — at least officially — if the puck is on your stick or a teammate’s.
And a quick glance at the NHL’s team hit totals would validate that postulate.
The Philadelphia Flyers, one of the NHL’s worst outfits, are second in the league with 894 hits through their first 29 games. Not coincidentally, they are 26th in the NHL through Monday in terms of the percentage of shot attempts they can claim at 46.7%.
Yet, roughly five hours to the west exists the antithesis of that supposedly tried-and-true notion with regard to hits versus puck possession prowess.
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Through Monday, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the league leaders in hits with 901. And while their puck possession numbers aren’t overwhelming, they are in the black as they control 50.1% of shot attempts, 13th-best in the league. And by the way, they happen to be on an 11-1-1 tear that has propelled them into second place of the Metropolitan Division.
It’s a dichotomy that doesn’t make sense based on the logic that having the puck prevents you from registering hits.
Unless you are the Penguins.
“It’s just being a team that’s hard to play against,” said forward Josh Archibald, whose 101 hits pace the Penguins and are the fourth-most in the NHL. “Obviously, if you want to dump the puck (into the offensive zone), you’ve got to go get it back and that usually involves a hit or two. Just being able to use our speed, get on the forecheck and put their defensemen under pressure is a lot of it and where a good portion of our hits come from. But also, when you’ve got (offensive) zone time and you want to get the puck back from a shot from the point or something, that usually involves a bump or two as well.”
To be clear, hits and a lot of other stats that the NHL tabulates have an inexact science. A hit, a shot attempt or a turnover to those counting those figures in Pittsburgh could be something entirely different to the scorekeepers in Philadelphia or Tampa or Vancouver. So any and all statistics the league offers should be examined with a fair dose of skepticism.
But for the time being, the Penguins are the hit kings of the NHL.
And chances are, you might not be the only one caught off guard by that.
“I’m a little surprised that we’re up there,” said Penguins forward Kasperi Kapanen, eighth on the team with 41 hits. “I wouldn’t have guessed that we are. But it’s always a positive sign.
“That’s us finishing checks on their (defensemen) so they can’t jump by us and join the rush. That’s just trying to end plays in our zone, too, when we’re defending.”
That commitment to stiff defense has been cited as a leading component to the Penguins’ recent success.
“When we defend hard, there’s physicality that’s associated with it,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “I don’t think we’re a team that’s going to have these bone-crushing body checks. But there needs to be an element of physicality to play solid defense. You’ve got to get into people. You’ve got to separate people from the puck. That’s an important aspect of it.”
And for the Penguins, a vital aspect of possessing the puck is physicality.
“For me, I’m a guy that usually gets a few more (hits) because I’m a lot of the time the first one on the forecheck,” said Penguins’ second-liner Jason Zucker, third on the squad with 74 hits. “Then hopefully, (linemates Bryan Rust or Evgeni Malkin) are coming in to create the turnover and actually get possession. I won’t get immediate possession, but I’ll end up with secondary possession because of it.”
Is there such a thing as too many hits? In other words, if you register an abundance of hits, does that signal an imbalance of puck possession?
“It always depends on the game,” Kapanen said. “I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. But I think if there are too many hits on our team in general, that might be that we’ve been running around a little bit too much and not playing as smart. But I don’t think there’s ‘too much.’ There’s a good medium. I think we’ve been doing that this year.”
If nothing else, they’ve certainly been doing it during this 14-game surge.
“Being able to play with speed and play with physicality comes with a lot of puck possession and (offensive) zone time, too,” Archibald said. “That’s been part of my game for so long that I don’t take too much interest in (hit stats). But I definitely love to do it.”
Note: The Penguins canceled on-ice practice Tuesday and were limited to off-ice workouts.