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Physicality, Finishing Checks, and why they don't matter

"Finishing Checks" is a great thing- but it ultimately has nothing to do with why the Wild won last night.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Wild won last night, playing the best game of hockey they've played in recent memory- arguably their best since the outdoor destruction of Chicago. Kurtis Gabriel also played last night, in his first playoff game.

First: let's get this out of the way: this isn't an article about KG exclusively. Rather, but rather the reason he was (allegedly) called up: to make the Wild more physical. It was, according to some, a message from John Torchetti to the Wild that they needed to finish their checks, something Gabriel is supposed to be good at. I will refrain from mentioning at this point that in his 6:52 of ice time, Gabriel only recorded one hit. In fairness to Gabriel, 6:52 isn't much time, and as we will see the Wild are not a hard-hitting team.

The Wild are thought of as a "soft" team. They don't hit enough, they don't play physical enough, etc. While I have bemoaned as much as anyone the lack of a net-front presence, this is a different, more systemic issue. It is the contention of some that hits- particularly in the playoffs- don't matter.

Let's talk about the Wild's physicality. (All of the following stats are from War on Ice and The

Firstly, there are no stats to talk about battles along the board, establishing a net-front-presence, etc. The Wild do some of these things well sometimes, though this season they have struggled particularly with having someone at the goalmouth to shovel in the garbage.

While it would be great to sit down and lay out objectively that the Wild did this or that; we don't have that option. We can bandy stories and anecdotes about when Nino was or wasn't soft on the puck, but until someone sits down and tracks puck battles, positioning, etc, there's no way to objectively determine trends. The best we could do is look at scoring chances, which has already been done.

TL;DR: Hits and physicality aren't the same thing, but hits are the only measured metric we have on which to base this evaluation.

Secondly: let's be clear on something: for all his good-guy-ness, Kurtis Gabriel is not an effective hockey player at the NHL level. If he was, he would not be in the AHL with little hope of getting called up at almost 23 years old. In the AHL this year, Gabriel registered a mere .15 points per game, but over 2 PIM per game. He averaged less than one shot on goal per game as well (60 SOG in 66 games). He seems like a nice young man, and I am sure he works hard- this is anything but personal (and, as I said, the focus is not on him primarily).

On to the Numbers

As far as "finishing checks" we can absolutely track that. They are called hits, and they are just about the most subjective thing in hockey. Trackers are human and miss them, and it's been shown time and again that home teams tend to somehow register more hits than they do away from home- almost as though there was some bias in the trackers themselves.

Fortunately, we have a full season to work with, so that bias should have balanced out over the course of the season.

The Wild this season registered 1375 hits while absorbing 1572. This is the second-fewest hits in the NHL, with only the Chicago Blackhawks being less physical (they recorded 1372). Vancouver is just above the Wild, with over 1400; the Wild are not an especially rambunctious team; this we know.

Chicago also tops the list for the most-hit team, at over 2300 hits absorbed. The Wild, on the other hand, are at 7th-least hit team in the league. So, while the Wild aren't laying people out, nor were they harassed physically all that much.

These numbers average out to: just over 16 hits given per game, and just over 19 received.

Now, the fact that the Wild struggled might indicate that these are not great averages, but the Hawks hit less and were hit more; could the problem be that the Wild aren't being hit enough? There may be something to that- the most hits in the league were subjected on Chicago, Montreal, Pittsburgh, LA, Philadelphia, the Islanders, and Sharks. But how do the Wild go about making the other team hit them? I would suggest possessing the puck more often.

On the other hand, perhaps the Wild aren't hitting enough? While it's true LA and the Anaheim Ducks are at the top of the league in hits, the Senators and Blue Jackets are up there as well. This indicates that it's likely not the number of hits you lay on a team, but rather what goes on between them that matters.

The Playoffs

Fascinating as all this might be, it tells us little about what's gone on in the playoffs so far. So, what's the story?


Hits Given

Hits Taken

1: 4/14



2: 4/16



3: 4/18



You're reading that right: the Wild laid far more hits in the first two games than they did in Monday's. To that point, the same is also true of the Stars. The only real differences between Monday's win and the previous two defeats are 1: there were fewer hits overall, and 2: the Wild out-hit the Stars.

There are four possible conclusions from this data:

1) The data is wrong. The bias between home and away is too significant to make any determinations. This is possible... but the fact that the Stars and Wild were so close in their totals indicates that it's probably not the case.

2) Simply out-hitting the stars is the strategy to go with. That's entirely possible.... but game 2 was also closely contested, with the Wild having ample chances to win, and they were out-hit by the same margin they out-hit the Stars in game 3. It's unlikely at best that simply having 1 more hit than the Stars is going to flip the table the way it was for most of game 3 on Monday.

3) Hits simply don't matter; at least not in and of themselves. The determining factor of whether a team wins or loses has more to do with their passing, shot creation, and shot suppression than it does their hitting. In other words: hitting is a tool, but using that tool more or less does not inherently make you more or less likely to win.

4) The Wild are at their best when they focus less on playing a hard-hitting game and more on moving the puck quickly and controlling it well. While all of the above stats are true, they are also irrelevant. Far more important than the physical play the Wild may or may not have used is the fact that Monday was the first time in the series the Wild out-shot the Stars, as well as creating more and better chances (the Wild dominated shots, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances).

Playing physical is a style that absolutely can work;  the Kings are a darn good team. But it is not at all necessary to win; just look at the Chicago Blackhawks. The Wild don't need to worry about doing anything more than controlling the puck, creating chances for themselves, and suppressing the other team's ability to score.