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Are the Penguins really leading the NHL in hits?

Home-arena bias could be driving up Pittsburgh’s counts.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders
Marcus Pettersson avoids the hit by New York Islander Casey Cizikas in Game 6 of the 2021 first round on May 26, 2021.
Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into Saturday, Nov. 13, StatMuse reports that the Penguins lead the entire NHL by crashing into opponents at a rate of 30.5 hits per game. What exactly does that mean?

The brave reader who gets all the way to Section 6 of the NHL rulebook learns what a hit is only by being told what is isn’t: it can’t involve unnecessary contact on an “obvious” icing or offsides (41.1), it can’t come after skating a distance to build momentum (42.1), it can’t be delivered to a defenseless player (43.1) and it can’t be delivered below the knees (44.1).

So, a hit is bodily contact intentionally delivered within these limits to a player who possesses the puck, and who loses possession of the puck as a result of the contact.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders - Game Six
New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck collides with Frederick Gaudreau in Game 6 of the 2021 first round on May 26.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The NHL’s glossary states that “the last player to physically touch the puck with his stick or body shall be considered in possession of the puck... a player can have possession of the puck without control, but he cannot have control of the puck without possession.”

Because a hit can be technically registered only on a player who has possession, or at least recently had possession, of the puck, it has been pointed out that the team leading in hits might be trailing in possession. Therefore, the Penguins’ high rank on hit counters for the past few seasons might be a bad— or at least, ambiguous— sign.

But do the Penguins actually lead the NHL in that category?

Pittsburgh Penguins v Ottawa Senators
Pierre-Olivier Joseph body-checks Ottawa Senators’ Zach Sanford on Nov. 13, 2021.
Photo by André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

The Win Column published an informative research piece in January 2021 that analyzed NHL hit counts per team for three seasons from 2017-2020 and found that certain arenas show a distinct bias in terms of counting hits. For example, in Canada, Ottawa records both the Senators and their opponents averaging nine more hits per game, each, when playing in Ottawa as opposed to on the road.

Even considering these other examples, the Penguins stand apart. Through those three seasons, they recorded an NHL-high average of 16.6 hits more at home than on the road. The likelihood of this bias affecting hit totals challenges the certainty behind reports that Pittsburgh has been one of the heaviest-hitting teams in the NHL for the past few seasons.

Heading into Saturday, the Penguins have played nine of their first 12 contests at PPG Paints Arena. This busy stretch of home games could have influenced the Penguins’ hit count. As the Penguins begin a busy month on the road— they play 11 of their next 14 contests in enemy arenas— will their hit totals drop?

NHL: Florida Panthers at Pittsburgh Penguins
Zach Aston-Reese draws an interference penalty for hitting Florida Panthers’ Frank Vatrano on Jan. 8, 2019.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports