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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Blues and Sharks skate in game 5 of the semifinals

The Blues and Sharks push and shove in front of the Sharks goal during the second period of the game between the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup semifinals at the SAP Center in San Jose. Blues players are David Perron and Brayden Schenn. The Sharks are Justin Braun, Brent Burns, and Timo Meier. Photo by J.B. Forbes,

Teams seeking Stanley Cup glory should learn from the Blues.

Speed and skill are rewarded in today's NHL, but hard and heavy play can decide playoff series. If you want to hold a drunken championship parade in your town, come to the rink prepared to hit and be hit.

San Jose Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said as much after the Blues advanced to face the Boston Bruins for the Cup.

“I think the two hardest, heaviest teams are in the final,” DeBoer said during his news conference after the Blues eliminated his team. “Everybody talks about skill and speed and there’s room for small players, but I don’t think it’s an accident. There’s no space. They’re heavy. They’re hard. They’re organized.”

The Blues outlasted the Bruins in a physical seven-game series to win the Cup and pounded home that point.

But there is no debate about one style over another, speed and skill versus hard and heavy. Contenders need both elements, one to get into the playoffs and one to succeed when they get there.

The same NHL rules changes and interpretations that opened up the sport for more speed and skill also put jet packs on forecheckers.

It's easier now to generate speed through the neutral zone for clean offensive zone entries or chip-and-chase checking.

The NHL shifted from a trapping league to a 200-foot pressure league. Opposing forwards can't hold up opponents, so teams can put the puck on the back wall and come bowling for defensemen.

But here's the difference: Regular-season hockey features speed minus hitting, while the playoffs feature speed plus hitting.

In the regular season, referees punish crunching hits with boarding, charging or interference calls. Any hard check is a potential penalty. Player safety is paramount.

Come playoff time, referees prefer not to make calls so players can get after each other. As for player safety, well, maybe the league will suspend an Oskar Sundqvist here or an Ivan Barbashev there.

At times, Blues forward Brayden Schenn took flying starts at foes — leaving his skates to crunch them with impunity.

"If you look at me personally or anyone else on this team, I just think playoffs is just more physical in general," Schenn said. "Whether it's more guys hitting, harder hits, stuff like that."

Teams that smother and punish opponents in the playoffs can tilt the ice in their favor. While coaching the Blues, Ken Hitchcock marveled at the tenacity of the Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings.

Hitchcock got the Blues to the Final Four with battle-tested warriors like David Backes and Troy Brouwer. After the team bogged down, coach Mike Yeo sped it back up after replacing Hitchcock.

But along the way the group lost its tenacity. Craig Berube, a Hitchcock disciple, helped get it back. He reintroduced the Blues to hard and heavy, a theme that will continue this season.

"I think our team is built a certain way, and I don't think that's going to change," general manager Doug Armstrong said. "I don't think Craig's coaching philosophy is going to change. We want to play quick, we want to play heavy, and we want to play in the offensive zone. That's the way we are built.

"We do have some faster players in our group, but still you don't stretch a lot from your identity."

Armstrong added some heft last summer when he signed the Big Rig, Pat Maroon. But he also added skilled, agitating winger David Perron, sturdy two-way center Ryan O'Reilly and supplemental playmaker Tyler Bozak.

He left openings for smaller, more skilled players to compete for work, and last season rookie Robert Thomas grabbed one of those jobs. This preseason, with top prospect Jordan Kyrou still recovering from knee surgery, Robby Fabbri tried to make his case.

While the team will miss Maroon, who signed with Tampa Bay this summer, power forward prospect Klim Kostin could replace some of that heft as he develops. Sundqvist, Barbashev and Sammy Blais all served as human missiles during the playoffs, and they could have bigger roles this season.

Will teams copy their postseason success?

"I don't know, to be honest," forward Alexander Steen said. "I am more focused on what we need to do here and how we want to play and the identity and the culture we've created and how we're going to keep building on that."

Certainly the Tampa Bay Lightning paid attention to that identity. That highly talented team rolled to 128 points in the regular season but lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets in four games in the first round.

Maroon can help the Lightning learn the hard and heavy side of hockey, which the Blues used to batter the Sharks.

“In the San Jose series, they took it to us the first game, but after the hand-pass game, we took it to them, just wore them down," Maroon told the Tampa Bay Times. "We got pucks in and went after them. It’s all mental. You make them frustrated. When they go back for the puck, they’re breathing heavy, thinking ‘Here we go again.’ You want that. We did that.”

Now the Lightning want to do that. So do the Sharks and every other contender that watched the Blues and Bruins go after each other full-tilt.

2019-20 Blues season preview

Compiled by Post-Dispatch hockey writers Jim Thomas and Tom Timmermann, and columnists Jeff Gordon, Benjamin Hochman and Ben Frederickson.

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