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PHT remembers hockey video games: “NHL Hitz 2003” still delivers

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Every week, PHT will remember a hockey video game (or games). For the first time in this series, PHT invites a guest contributor. Enjoy a fun take from Tony Abbott (@OhHiTony) on the very fun Midway title NHL Hitz 2003. Some refer to it as “NHL Hitz 20-03,” but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll drop the hyphen.

I’ve always been a sucker for the cult classic.

My favorite movie? The Room. I’ll tell anyone who will listen that the best rock record is a science-fiction punk album called Death By Television. Catch me on the right day and I’ll argue that Dollhouse was better than both Buffy and Firefly. And of course, hockey is my favorite sport. For whatever reason, if it isn’t for everyone, there’s a good chance it might be for me.

So it may not surprise anyone that my favorite hockey video game is NHL Hitz 2003.

The Hitz series, published by Midway as a companion to games like NBA Jam and NFL Blitz, hasn’t endured quite like other hockey games. It wasn’t an early pioneer like Blades of Steel or the NES’ Ice Hockey. It wasn’t the classic perfection of NHL 94. And it certainly isn’t the monolith that the NHL games of today are.

While I’m not immune to the charms of those games — I’ll gladly play any of them today — none of them will ever make me as giddy as NHL Hitz 2003 does. Thought making Gretzky’s head bleed was pure joy? You haven’t lived until you’ve knocked Jeremy Roenick through the glass, then centered the puck for a one-time goal.

Intensive research shows: NHL Hitz 2003 holds up, and the hits(z) keep coming

I dug up my Playstation 2 last night, strictly for research purposes, for the first time in over a year. It took two games for me to get used to the controls again. Super easy. A button to pass, to shoot (hold for a slapper), to deke and to protect the puck from poke checks on offense. A button for body and stick checking on defense. Left trigger for a limited turbo.

The polygonal graphics may not be crisp anymore, but that gameplay still is. Every match is 3-on-3, and it perfectly replicates the excitement of today’s NHL overtime. Oversized players zip around on undersized ice. The passing is tape-to-tape. There are odd-man rushes. You will see breakaways. All game long.

And there are the Hitz! The Hitz keep coming! You’ll have to play a heavy style of hockey that will make Tom Wilson blush if you want to win. Open-ice hits that send players flipping. Body checks that put the unlucky recipients through the glass, creating a temporary 3-on-2 rush. Casually grabbing opponents and ripping them down. Even the poke checking is nothing more than tripping half the time.

You ride this tense line all game: You have the speed to be five seconds from scoring at any time. If you can’t dodge the other team, you’ll get knocked down before you can fire even a weak wrist shot.

Experiencing that again was like visiting an old college friend again. And it reminded me of another one.

A friendly rivalry forms around “NHL Hitz 2003”

There’s a lot to do as a single player in NHL Hitz 2003. There’s a franchise mode where you start as a terrible team and work your way into the NHL. You can play as any team in season mode, and even jumble the rosters up in a fantasy draft. There are a massive number of classic jerseys to unlock, and trivia questions to answer after every match. When you get bored of playing the main game, there are plenty of minigames to conquer.

But there’s nothing like a good rivalry. These were the pre-online days, so any multiplayer was local. And a couch or dorm room is a terrific cauldron for a bitter, decade-long grudge with your best friend.

It happened to me. I learned of the game from my freshman roommate’s GameCube collection. It wouldn’t take long for me to find a copy for myself at a game store. And once I had it, it wasn’t long before I fired it up for the first time with my neighbor Danny.

Danny picked up the game instantly, and we were both hooked. We’d play late into the night, cycling through our favorite teams, and trash-talking loud enough to garner the occasional threat from the RAs. The 15-minute games made for the perfect study break during the school year. And stringing seven of them together made for an even more perfect study break.

Hitz’ appeal lasted through the years. Danny left to study abroad in Germany for a year. Upon his return, we were back to Hitz in a week. After we graduated and Danny had moved two hours south? I’d bring my PS2 in tow whenever we visited. And when he moved back to the area, the game was there and the rivalry was as fierce as ever.

This was in large part due to how evenly matched we were. In games like NHL 94 or NBA Jam, I stood little chance. Whether it was the ease of play of the scores of hours I sunk into it, I could keep up with him in NHL Hitz 2003.

The legendary rivalry of Ron Francis vs … Mike Comrie?

We both succeeded with vastly different styles. I was skilled with poke checks and dined out on one-timers. Danny had incredible reflexes around the net, cashing in rebounds with regularity. He also had a frustrating ability to score on breakaways without making any fancy moves whatsoever.

But the defining dynamic of our rivalry boiled down to two players, the mere mention of whom will cause one of us to cackle and the other to spit. Ron Francis and Mike Comrie.

I played a memorable game as the Carolina Hurricanes, who had Francis on the team. Francis was very slow, but had a cannon for a shot and was the best passer in the game not named “Mario”. One game I was able to feed one-timer after one-timer to Francis, who couldn’t be stopped. He scored five goals, and my gloating increased every time he lit the lamp en route to victory.

Ron Francis in "NHL Hitz 2003/20-03"
Try to avert your eyes from Jeff O’Neill’s sweet highlights for a second and check out Ronnie’s ratings (via Midway/Youtube)

Shortly after, Danny got his revenge in picking Edmonton. He got a quick hat trick with Comrie, then a fourth goal. Getting blown out, I decided to give up on the victory and devote myself to only one task: Stop Comrie by any means necessary. Danny scored a fifth and sixth goal with Comrie, completing my humiliation.

We cycle through a number of teams (about half the league is extremely fun to play as) so as not to get stale. But when one of our backs are against the wall, we’ll go back to Carolina or Edmonton to break a slump. Our message to each other: “You’re going to lose, and you’re going to lose to the player you hate the most.”

The NHL Hitz didn’t exactly keep coming

Other games have come along to fulfill Hitz’ legacy, but none have filled its shoes. EA released an arcade version of its game that was more stripped-down than Hitz’ brand of hockey. NHL 18 offered a 3-on-3 mode that, while fun, lacked the sharp passing and heightened reality that Midway offered.

18 years later, we’re still looking for a true successor to Hitz (This is the part where I beg Metalhead to create Super Mega Hockey). But that’s OK. As long as my PS2 is working, I’ll gladly revisit Hitz. And the next time I visit Danny, I’ll make it a priority to reacquaint him with Ron Francis.

Note from James O’Brien: For whatever reason, the “shooting out windows” minigame stood out for me:

Also, it’s worth noting that NHL Hitz Pro served as a sequel to NHL Hitz 2003. That doesn’t make Abbott wrong, about the lack of a true successor, though. That’s because Hitz Pro tried to blur the lines between hockey sims and the arcade-style action. While the reviews were reasonably decent for NHL Hitz Pro, it also represented the end of that series. What are hockey video games without Hitz? They’re less fun.

Now, as bonus, Tony Abbott shared his power rankings for the top 10 teams in NHL Hitz 2003. (Do note that Abbott wasn’t counting the create-a-team you made with cowboys or giraffes or whatever.)

NHL Hitz 2003 Power Rankings:

  1. Colorado Avalanche: Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic bring the skill, Rob Blake pounds opponents into submission, and Patrick Roy is in net. Honestly, it’s unfair.
  2. Detroit Red Wings: With Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, and Nick Lidstrom at their peaks, Sergei Fedorov can’t even crack the lineup.
  3. Philadelphia Flyers: Jeremy Roenick and company punished you with a bruising style, and this game happened to be released when Roman Cechmanek was a thing.
  4. St. Louis Blues: Cover Athlete Chris Pronger and Keith Tkachuk were more than enough to cover for occasionally shaky goaltending.
  5. San Jose Sharks: Vincent Damphousse’s top-notch passing means you can set up Teemu Selanne and Owen Nolan all game.
  6. New Jersey Devils: Surprisingly light on the defensive end. Patrik Elias brings some skills, but the game underrates Scott Niedermayer. If Martin Brodeur falters, you’re in trouble.
  7. New York Rangers: Will Mike Richter let you down? Frequently. Are Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, and Brian Leech fun enough to cancel that out? Absolutely.
  8. Boston Bruins: Another bad goaltending team, but with Joe Thornton and Brian Rolston blasting shots, you have plenty of opportunity to out-score the other guys.
  9. Dallas Stars: Bill Guerin and Mike Modano form an elite power/speed duo. Too bad the Stars’ goal song doesn’t make it in, as it’d fit perfectly with the metal-focused soundtrack.
  10. Carolina Hurricanes: The playmaking Francis, a speedy sniper in Sami Kapanen, and the do-it-all Jeff O’Neill make for a balanced team.

Tony Abbott is a freelance writer, primarily covering the Minnesota Wild. His work has been featured at Zone Coverage, The Athletic Minnesota, and SB Nation’s Hockey Wilderness. Follow him @OhHiTony on Twitter.

PHT remembers other hockey video games:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Predators roundtable: Which one of Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne is most expendable?

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As we discussed earlier, the Predators are struggling to re-sign Shea Weber. Elliotte Friedman also points out that the team might have a hard time retaining the “Big 3” of Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne, a subject many people tackled already. It’s no guarantee that the Predators will need to part ways with one of those players (nor is it a guarantee that they will retain any of them), but in the spirit of discussion, we thought we’d ask four of our favorite Predators bloggers a simple yet challenging question:

If you had to let one of Weber, Suter or Rinne go, which one would it be?

Here are their answers.

Buddy Oakes from Preds on the Glass:

I think Friedman’s numbers are a bit high for Suter and Rinne and I’m still thinking that Weber will come in about $7 million since he has told me specifically that he wants to leave money for others to keep the team together.

It’s probably an extreme minority view, but I would let Weber go if I had a choice. He would be the most marketable for a trade and would result in the greatest return. Suter is a better pure defenseman and would have an offensive upside if not paired with Weber. We have seen that Suter plays better without Weber than Weber does without Suter.

Also, the Preds have a good stockpile of young D-men to filter into the system. In spite of having other young goalies, Rinne should have several more years as one of the league’s best and is the true MVP of the team.

Amanda DiPaolo from Inside Smashville:

I fall in the camp of doing whatever it takes, including dumping salary, to keep Rinne, Suter and Weber, but I’d let go of Suter if one was going to leave.

While Suter is a great defenseman, Weber is the face of the franchise and better all around. People like to say that Weber is so good because he has a Suter playing with him – you need the stay at home d-man to allow for the power d-man like Weber to play his game – but it’s a role Blum could play, making Suter more replaceable.

Keeping Weber is also important to the franchise from an outside perspective since the Predators have a reputation for developing solid players and then losing them to free agency. Rinne has continued to improve every season in net. I’m just not ready to hand over the reins to Lindback (or anyone else for that matter).

Dirk Hoag, managing editor of On The Forecheck:

If forced to let one of the Big 3 go, my choice would easily be Pekka Rinne. As beloved as he is here in Nashville, he has a shorter history of elite performance than Weber or Suter, and when you look at the evolution of the goaltending market over the last few years, tying up something like $6 million annually seems like a poor long-term decision.

Besides, the real MVP of the Preds is goaltending coach Mitch Korn; the team has enjoyed superior play in net pretty much every season despite rotating through a number of players after Tomas Vokoun left in 2007. Whether it’s through the maturation of Anders Lindback, or the budget-friendly acquisition of a proven veteran, it would appear that if you need to make a financially-driven decision that least affects the overall quality of the team, Pekka has to go.

Jeremy K. Gover, managing editor of Section 303.

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: Pekka Rinne is an all-world, elite goaltender (and those don’t just grow on trees). We know this not because he was runner-up for the Vezina, not because he should’ve won the Calder over Steve Mason in 2009 and not because he took fourth in the Hart voting either. We know this because he’s been giving the offensively-challenged Predators a chance to win every single game for the past three years. So Rinne’s out.

Shea Weber is the team captain. He’s the leader on and off the ice. He may not be the best quote in the locker room but he’s the closest thing the Preds have to a face of the league. So he’s out.

That leaves Ryan Suter. As much as he’s the first lieutenant in Weber’s army, he is the most expendable of the three. Nashville has other defensemen in the system who could eventually fill his role. So, while it would hurt (a lot!), the lesser of three evils is Suter.

***

So that’s two votes for Suter and one vote for Weber and Rinne. Personally, I’d lean toward replacing Rinne since the team has such a strong track record when it comes to generating quality goalies (and supporting them with great defense). As you can see from this study, it wouldn’t be an easy choice either way.

The Sore Thumb: San Jose Sharks

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With the Western Conference finals primed to kick off on Sunday night (8 p.m. ET on Versus, to be exact), we have a little more time to explore the two matchups. The NHL’s final four teams have plenty of strengths, but even these squads have a weakness or two. With that notion in mind, we asked: what flaw sticks out like a sore thumb?

To best answer that question, we provided our own hypothesis and also polled a blogger from each team.

Let’s take a look at the San Jose Sharks. (Click here to read the Vancouver Canucks version.)

Our choice: The Sharks’ defensive depth.

From a pure talent standpoint, Dan Boyle is the best defenseman on either the Sharks or Canucks roster. He’s not the world’s best player in his own end (though he’s more than adequate), but he’s one of the NHL’s most dangerous scorers from the blueline. Boyle is accompanied by a solid positional defenseman in Marc-Edouard Vlasic and a hard-hitting Swede in Douglas Murray.

Unfortunately, the rest of the defense isn’t so great. Jason Demers has some tantalizing offensive skill, but he’s not necessarily adept at shutting down an opposing offense. Ian White’s been better than expected, but he’s not an elite blueliner by any means. Niclas Wallin is a limited player as well.

I’m not saying the Sharks defense is downright awful, but against a team as good as Vancouver, that group could get exposed.

For a second opinion, we polled Mr. Plank from SBNation’s Fear the Fin.

The San Jose Sharks blueline has long been a concern for many following the team. It’s a unit that doesn’t have a premier shutdown player, relying instead on a strong team defense mentality to keep pucks out of their own net. With the Sedins and Alex Burrows going up against Keith-Seabrook and Weber-Suter in their wins over Chicago and Nashville respectively, I don’t think there’s any real surprise they’ve struggled as much as they have– those are world-class shutdown pairings. The Sharks just don’t have that type of firepower. Although I’ve argued for years that Marc-Edouard Vlasic is one of the most under-appreciated defensive defenseman in the game today, his partner Jason Demers hasn’t gotten there yet– Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray are also two excellent defenseman but both lack polish in their own zone at times.

That being said, where San Jose really flourishes and makes up for those shortcomings is with their forward group. Captain Joe Thornton has really set an example for the team this year with his attention to defensive play, and just about every forward under the California sun has followed suit. With the Sedins cycling the puck as much as they do you have to be sure that everyone is engaged in the play (especially your centerman), collapsing to the front of the net and helping out along the boards. If you don’t do that, the blueliners are going to be running around all night long and changing constantly after a prolonged stint in the defensive zone.

Vancouver’s forward depth isn’t as good as San Jose’s, but those top two lines are something special. No surprise there considering both Henrik and Daniel were nominated for the Hart Trophy in separate consecutive years. If the Sharks can hold the Sedins off the scoresheet I don’t think Vancouver has the offensive horses to run (swim?) with the Sharks depth. It’s just a matter of shutting them down consistently. That’s something that’s going to take a lot of work (and a little luck) to pull off.

***

So there you go, Mr. Plank and I agree: defense might be the Sharks’ biggest question. I’m more concerned with San Jose’s lower ranks while he has concerns about the group as a whole. San Jose has been tested already, but the Canucks present the deepest team they’ll face in the playoffs. We will see how their defense responds.

The Sore Thumb: Vancouver Canucks

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With the Western Conference finals primed to kick off on Sunday night (8 p.m. ET on Versus, to be exact), we have a little more time to explore the two matchups. The NHL’s final four teams have plenty of strengths, but even these squads have a weakness or two. With that notion in mind, we asked: what flaw sticks out like a sore thumb?

To best answer that question, we provided our own hypothesis and also polled a blogger from each team.

Let’s take a look at the Vancouver Canucks.

Our choice: The Sedin twins’ health and productivity.

For a team that finds itself in the Western Conference finals, Canucks players have faced their fair share of criticism during the last month. In the first round, most of the critiques were lobbed at Roberto Luongo. The team’s goalie took a backseat to the Sedin twins against the Nashville Predators, however, as Ryan Kesler was forced to save the day.

While the typical sportswriter instinct would be to question their toughness or ability to handle playoff pressure, the bigger concern is about the Sedin twins’ health. Henrik Sedin, in particular, seems like he might be dealing with some kind of injury.

The team was able to survive against the Predators despite the Sedins’ struggles, but the San Jose Sharks present a bigger challenge. San Jose’s high-powered offense will likely force Vancouver to light up the scoreboard at least a couple times, so the Sedin twins will need to be their typically productive selves.

A near-week of rest might not heal up injuries that might require surgery, but at least Henrik and Daniel received some time to nurse their wounds. If you ask me, though, those two sore siblings might just be Vancouver’s sore thumb.

Now that you’ve read the PHT hypothesis, here’s Yankee Canuck from the SBN blog Nucks Misconduct.

The lone concern is goal scoring (having been outscored 33-30 so far) and that means the blame falls to the Sedins twins and, more specifically, Henrik. His struggles haven’t eluded anyone as he’s not been as strong on the puck as we’re accustomed to, which limits the opportunities for Daniel and Alex Burrows to fire some high percentage shots on net. With a beast like Murray potentially hounding him, it could get a lot worse and increase the pressure on Kesler’s line to carry the offensive burden.

A few days off to heal the wounds might do wonders for Henrik and the twins will remain huge threats on the PP, but even strength goal production has to be better. The same can be said for offensive support from the defense, which chipped in some crucial goals against Nashville.

All in if Vancouver can collectively flex their scoring muscle on pace with their regular season results, they’ll get their four wins.

***

So Yankee Canuck and I focused on the Sedin twins, particularly Henrik. It’s not a revolutionary observation to make, but their outputs will likely make or break Vancouver’s series against San Jose. This is their chance to show that they are genuine stars in the NHL. It’ll be fascinating to find out if they can pull it off.

The Sore Thumb: Tampa Bay Lightning

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With the conference finals primed to kick off on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET on Versus, to be exact), we have a little more time to explore the two matchups. The NHL’s final four teams have plenty of strengths, but even these squads have a weakness or two. With that notion in mind, we asked: what flaw sticks out like a sore thumb?

To best answer that question, we provided our own hypothesis and also polled a blogger from each team.

Let’s take a look at the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Click here for the Boston Bruins’ version.)

Our choice: Tampa Bay’s defense.

Much credit should be given to Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 trap. It bottles up offensive attacks and allows the Lightning to camouflage a pedestrian group of defensemen.

I’m sorry, but when Eric Brewer is most indispensable blueliner, you might not have the most talented D corps. That’s not to say that Brewer is outright awful, but the Lightning allowed 35.5 shots per game in the playoffs so far. Only the Buffalo Sabres (35.6) and Los Angeles Kings (38.9) gave up more shots per game in the postseason. You cannot say that the Lightning are just engaging in shot-happy games that throw off the numbers, either. They’re averaging just 26.7 shots per game, the lowest rate in the 2011 playoffs.

Then again, the Boston Bruins allowed 34.4 shots per game in their two series*, so perhaps both sides should worry about their defenses a bit (and thank their goalies Dwayne Roloson and Tim Thomas). It seems like Roloson saved their defense and bolstered Boucher’s system, but we’ll see if the 41-year-old goalie can do it again.

Speaking of Roloson, Cassie McClellan of the SBN blog Raw Charge imagines a Lightning world without the veteran goalie in her own “sore thumb” piece.

Who is Tampa Bay’s sore thumb? Two words: Mike Smith.

While no one was thrilled with the 10-day layoff between series for the Lightning, it did give 41-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson some time to rest. And that one fact put a lot of fans’ minds at ease. The chances of Roloson getting injured are about the same as any goaltender left in the playoffs, so that’s not really the issue. However, the harrowing couple of minutes when Roloson went down during the Washington Capitals series after Alex Ovechkin grazed his windpipe with the blade of his stick was a wakeup call. It made everyone realize that, well, what would happen if Dwayne had to sit for a while? And the answer to that question horrified a lot of people.

Roloson is everything Lightning fans could’ve asked for in a starting goaltender. But at this point, if the worst-case scenario were to happen and he were to go down, I think fans would rather take their chances with fourth-stringer Dustin Tokarski (third-stringer Cedrick Desjardins is out with a shoulder injury) than with backup Mike Smith. That’s how little faith the fanbase puts in him – despite becoming a lot more consistent this past regular season.

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So it looks like Cassie and I are worried about the Lightning in their own end. The biggest difference, obviously, is that she worries about Roloson going down with an injury while I worry more about his defense exposing him to another heavy barrage of shots. I’m unsure if Roloson can bail that shaky defense out for another playoff round, but Cassie is most concerned about any other goalie attempting to do the same.

*- The Bruins didn’t deal with the same glaring shot disparity, though, since they also fired 33.8 shots per game through 11 contests.