The Morning After: Let's talk about hits baby
San Jose didn't beat the Canadiens because of lots of hits. I promise.
The Sharks finally, mercifully snapped a long losing streak last night by handing the Frenchiest team in the NHL a rare loss at home. It's the kind of win that isn't exactly pleading to be poked and prodded at, nor is it dying to be ripped apart and examined. San Jose didn't play its best hockey, but the Sharks were good enough to win; or, the Canadiens were bad enough, anyway. Who cares.
One thing is (basically) for certain: The Sharks didn't win last night because they outhit the Montreal Canadiens 38-18. There's been a lot of talk about "physicality," which seems a silly conversation to have in a sport as inherently violent as hockey. How do you quantify who hurts the other guys the most in the NHL? Hits? Penalties taken? Which team has Dustin Brown?
This isn't to say that because it isn't quantifiable it isn't real — I'm sure some teams are less fun to play against than others because they hit everyone and everything that moves. That doesn't make them good. The Sharks have long been successful (yes, they've been successful you contrarian, playoff-pointing jerk) as a team that emphasizes skill over "grit" and "want" and "whatever."
There's certainly a rough, energetic style of play that leads to good things like shots and goals, but it's pretty clear that the hits stat isn't where you're going to find it. Randy Hahn pointed out the Sharks impressive hit total multiple times during the broadcast, most likely because San Jose was being outshot by Montreal for the majority of the evening. Here's a good read on why the hits stat is useless.
Here's a look at hits compared to percentage of goals scored for the past three seasons.
...and here's the same chart when done with shots instead of hits.
Right. Add in that going out of your way to make big hits is the sort of thing you get penalized for in the NHL and it becomes pretty clear the strategy should be, well, to make smart hits. Hit smarter not harder, or something. The Sharks won last night because Montreal got god-awful goaltending while Martin Jones played excellently.
After surviving a first period onslaught the Sharks found their footing and played okay. Not great, not even good, really, but they played okay at even strength. Given the injuries San Jose has endured this season, playing okay with a win is good enough.