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Tough guy tactics are alive and well in the NHL

Ottawa Senators winger Chris Neil (R) lands a punch on New Jersey Devils winger David Clarkson as a fan reacts as they fight in the first period of their NHL hockey game in Newark, New Jersey, January 4, 2009.

RAY STUBBLEBINE/REUTERS/RAY STUBBLEBINE/REUTERS

Here's a fun old cliché about the NHL: each successful team needs at least one player, preferably two, who "plays on the edge" and brings "grit and competitiveness."

In other words, guys who play kind of dirty.

And/or will beat you up for no other reason than they feel like it.

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The evidence from Wednesday that this is true: Toronto inserts truculence merchant Colby Armstrong, who is no shrinking violet when it comes to iffy hits and the dark arts of corner play, back into the lineup, halts losing streak.

The Anaheim Ducks' Corey Perry, another player known for lightly bending the occasional rule, scores his 28th of the season in a 2-1 win over the Penguins, the offensively-challenged defenceman Sheldon Brookbank (0 goals, 6 fighting majors this year) chips in a helper on the winning goal.

Ottawa, with the pleasantly chippy Nick Foligno and punch-happy Chris Neil, a Tough Guy Who Can Play, in their lineup, smoke the Panthers 6-2.

Vancouver, rejuvenated since putting the two-fisted hulk that is Byron Bitz out with the Sedin twins, eases past Colorado.

And Boston, who employ the egregious Brad Marchand, bolt out to a 3-1 lead against Montreal, who then mount a furious fight-back before losing in a shootout (which they're very good at –losing, we mean).

Coincidence that Ryan White, a rough-and-tumble winger who spent stretches of the game taking healthy runs at people, made his season debut for the Habs and that the twin flashpoints in the game involved Alexei Emelin, the Russian defenceman with a penchant for borderline hits?

When Emelin smashed Boston's Shawn Thornton – another highly-coveted Tough Guy Who Can Play – into the glass in the first period, there was more than a soupçon of a hit from behind.

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But that's okay, Marchand later evened the stakes in typical fashion, throwing a sneaky low-bridge hit at Emelin's knees at the end of the second period.

The Habs also had good games from the guy everyone loves to hate, P.K. Subban, and rookie winger/centre Louis Leblanc, who seems to have considerable promise as a player who drives opponents spare with his little hacks, chops and tugs when the ref has his head turned.

Okay, one night's worth of games is not a huge sample.

Still. Go through the list of teams, everybody's got a couple – well, okay, maybe not Pittsburgh since the transmogrification of Matt Cooke.

But even Cooke, once considered the biggest cheap-shot artiste in the NHL, is these days because – at last – he's bringing the hurt a little more often.

And that's the crux of all this. Intimidation, that grand old tactic, is alive and well in the NHL, and in the minds of some players, can be effective against certain players, as our friends at Sports Illustrated reveal .

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The theory isn't perfect.

A complement of hard men is no guarantee of success, and even bad teams typically have a few spit-stirrers. (Ben Eager scored for Edmonton in their loss against Toronto, and he even has a Stanley Cup ring.)

So maybe the theory needs a little more nuance.

To stack the roster with scary monsters and shiv artists is no guarantee of winning, but all other things being equal, they can nudge you into the win column when the intensity cranks up – as it is now that the trade deadline is fast approaching.

So watch out for teams with a strong complement of players who carry metaphorical switchblades.

Why would the New York Rangers want Rick Nash when they have Brandon Prust?

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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