Everybody loves a big hit. EA Sports is counting on that in sponsoring a series at our hockey sites around the theme "The Thrill of the Big Hit" -- which to many a hockey fan calls to mind bone-crunching, concussion-like-symptom-inducing collisions that bring 18,000 to their feet.
While those are exciting and lovely, I'm always more interested in a different kind of big hit: The kind that strategically changes a play and advances the puck. These are often more subtle plays, quickly forgotten because -- well, because the puck draws the eye in this game, and these hits are more about freeing and advancing the puck rather than intimidating someone into getting Eric Boulton on the phone.
I noted one such play in last night's Islanders shootout loss to the Blue Jackets, where Matt Martin threw a simple hit in the left wing corner to pin his man and free the puck for linemate Casey Cizikas, who made a nice move to set up Colin McDonald in the slot. That hit didn't produce a goal but was early in a sequence of shifts that helped the Islanders build a 2-0 second-period lead.
(As if to underline how these hits are overlooked, this one is not among the hits in the game's highlight package at nhl.com, though another Martin hit is.)
No dice there, but it reminded me of another subtle big hit from last year's playoffs -- also ultimately in a loss, but this one leading to a goal.
I present Exhibit: Michael Grabner, who reportedly came under scrutiny for not playing the body when warranted in the Game 1 loss. Here in Game 6, he made a key body play to help give the Islanders a 2-1 lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins:
On the play, Keith Aucoin's advance pass in the neutral zone slips through the speedy Grabner, so it carries to the corner behind the Penguins net. Penguins defenseman Paul Martin -- possessing a reputation for his own skill playing the body -- is first to the puck and Grabner knows this.
But Grabner plays him perfectly, not running him hard to the boards but also not letting him retrieve the puck and spin away, either. Instead, it's Grabner who spins after he controls Martin, grabs the puck and passes back to Aucoin in one motion. Aucoin quickly feeds across the crease to Colin McDonald for a steady tap-in.
Of course, as we all know, the Penguins came out on top in this back-and-forth game via an overtime winner that eliminated the Isles in six games. But this play by Grabner is typical of "the little things" coaches and players talk about so often, but which often escape the highlight reel.
It's a play quickly forgotten to history, but it's a key hockey play. I'd even call it a big hit.