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  1. HF Test950.23:22:55.2637319
Finishing every check: Fun to watch, not always smart to do
Updated 4/4/2011 3:36 PM ET
It's a long-held hockey mantra: finish every check.

Coaches preach it, teammates encourage it, and fans love it. It's effective, players are told, and with that endorsement from every coach we've ever had, we apply the rule liberally.

Of course, finishing every check is a lot of work. It involves taking a couple extra strides, tensing your core muscles and worst of all, losing your momentum and having to start up again.

For those difficult reasons, midseason games don't always involve as much physical play as we see during the crucial games at the end of the schedule. It's not that guys don't try in the middle of the season, it's just that they try so hard during the playoffs (and the playoff push) to do everything that they're supposed to, so we see a lot more contact.

It's finally that time of year, and predictably, we're seeing more consistency in check-finishing.

As a player, I always had one question that would have been blasphemy to ask: Is it really advantageous to finish every check?

I have my doubts.

I always held two minds when it came to this: If you can separate a man from the puck with a hit, it makes perfect sense. If you can stop his momentum and eliminate him from jumping by you and going on a rush, boom, check finished. And even occasionally when a guy has his head down, I'm fine with giving out some punishment to let him know our team isn't easy to play against (the latter was not my specialty, I assure you, but kudos to those who can execute clean open-ice hits).

That was the pro-hit everything part of my mind.

The other half felt like taking extra strides to finish a check — for example, after a D-man moves the puck up past me to a winger — makes zero sense. If I turn and keep my speed, that defenseman isn't going to be able to jump past me. I can keep my momentum without having to start from scratch and conserve energy (not an unimportant thing). I can better get back in position to help us defend, and be where my linemates fully expect me to be.

The skate to go bump a guy who just moved the puck always seemed like such an unnecessary skate, not because I don't enjoy mindlessly plowing an opponent into the end boards, but for reasons of logic.

BOURNE'S IDENTITY

Justin Bourne, a former minor league hockey player, writes a column for USA TODAY during the NHL season.

And there's another part of it, too. Hockey is such a game of machismo; we're going to intimidate them, we're going to let them know that every time they touch the puck, they're going to get hit.

The goal with this constant run-into-them-ness is to make them panic with the puck and unload it before looking around to make the smart play.

That's fine for junior hockey and below, and to some extent, even college hockey. At the lowest levels of pro, it might be semi-effective, too.

But from what I saw of the ECHL and AHL (let alone the guys at the NHL level), players are simply too good to grab the puck in fear and fire it down the ice so they have more time to avoid getting hit. They have composure, they have poise. They're the opposite of panicked, sometimes to the point where you wonder if they have a pulse (see: Tomas Kaberle).

You can't play hockey professionally if you're not OK with contact. Your opponents are big and fast, and if you're afraid of them, you'll probably end up a writer by the time you're 28.

Point is, when the playoffs officially get underway in a little more than a week, no doubt it's going to be run-around-and-hammer-anything-in-a-different-color time as per usual. It's a blast to watch. Glass will shake, boards will bend and the madness that is the race to the Stanley Cup Final will be underway.

But sometimes it doesn't make sense.

On the penalty kill, coaches tell their players to not finish their checks in 95% of cases — not in the defensive zone, not in the neutral zone, and definitely not in the offensive zone. The logic being that it makes a 5-on-4 a 4-on-3 and so on — basically, your team can't defend as well when you're tied up with someone.

Well in the defensive-minded playoffs, it seems to me that "not defending as well" at even strength isn't an awesome idea either.

I like physical hockey, but if I'm a coach, I prefer smart play. We're creeping up on the time of the year where being smart is at a premium. Maybe it's time to stop sending your players out of position to hit players with too much poise to care what's coming.

Posted 4/4/2011 3:31 PM ET
Updated 4/4/2011 3:36 PM ET
A poised defenseman like Boston's Tomas Kaberle, left, isn't going to throw away the puck because someone is going to hit him.
By Geoff Howe, AP
A poised defenseman like Boston's Tomas Kaberle, left, isn't going to throw away the puck because someone is going to hit him.