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Living on the edge

Hardnosed handful rises above the cheapshot artists

Posted: Monday February 4, 2008 1:58PM; Updated: Tuesday February 5, 2008 4:04PM
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Bruins rookie Milan Lucic, a YoungStars participant, is an impressive combination of bruising physicality and skill.
Bruins rookie Milan Lucic, a YoungStars participant, is an impressive combination of bruising physicality and skill.
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Is it just coincidence that the Penguins' Jarkko Ruutu and the Rangers' Ryan Hollweg were both at it again with questionable hits last week? Ruutu felled Ilya Kovalchuk with a knee-on-knee blow on Wednesday as the Thrashers' star tried to sidestep the late, high finish of Ruutu's original advance. On Sunday, Hollweg delivered the latest in the season's string of hits from behind, this one on Canadiens' Sergei Kostitsyn.

No, there is a pattern with these players, so much so that it makes you understand the sensibilities behind the senseless acts of currently-suspended Islander Chris Simon. He lashed out late last season at Hollweg, whacking him across the face with his stick. This season, Simon dangerously stepped on the prone Ruutu's leg with his skate blade as the two ostensibly performed the perfunctory act of getting to their respective benches on a line change. Yet, as out of line as Simon's acts were, his marauding did invoke the ancient hockey phrase: "Get the riight guy." Both Ruutu and Hollweg are at the top of the Cross-the-Line Culprits list.

The puck-optional pursuit of punishing checks by these kind of players is the bane of the league because the notion of self-policing always enters the discussion when talk turns to repealing the instigator rule. The theory goes that if players weren't fearful of getting the extra two-minutes for instigating a fight, Ruutu and Hollweg and players of that ilk would cease and desist if they knew they were going to be on the painful end of a pounding. I'm not so sure. Simon's attacks didn't back either guy off and what else can they do? They're both one-dimensional in their play as well as the exception rather than the rule among NHL players.

No, allowing the instigation of fights because of the acts of a couple of wanton repeat offenders isn't the answer. Stern suspensions will suffice. The longer the stretches that the league keeps these two thugs off the ice, the better. Besides, there are a host of players who play on the proverbial edge, but who shouldn't be lumped into the same category as Ruutu and Hollweg. Sean Avery of the Rangers is an example of one who agitates but has skill as well.

Darcy Tucker at his best in Toronto also comes to mind as a player who has walked that fine line, but that hasn't let it define his game. Scott Hartnell in Philadelphia is a hard competitor who has been suspended for a hit this season, yet in the overall, he is effective on many fronts. Same with Chris Neil of the Senators and Steve Ott in Dallas.

The list of hard-nosed competitors is growing, with youngsters David Clarkson in New Jersey battling every night to keep a roster spot and Curtis Glencross in Columbus likewise playing with an edge on both sides of the puck. Two of my favorite rookies this season are Daniel Carcillo in Phoenix and Milan Lucic of Boston. Both play with boundless energy and exuberance and spend an inordinate amount of time infuriating their opponents. Carcillo leads the NHL in penalty minutes, but is scrappy more than dirty and has some offensive game as well -- and that's what the Coyotes hope to enhance by giving him his recent time-out in the AHL. Lucic has the potential to be a dominant power forward in the league -- someone in the mold of former Bruin Cam Neely, a Hall-of-Famer.

So, hard-nosed competitiveness is alive and well in the NHL and still defines the game. Ruutu and Hollweg continue to play by their own definition, but thankfully, they're on a very short list and hopefully an even shorter leash.

The Week Ahead

Speaking of toughness, the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks will look to end a six-game losing streak while still touring the East on their eight-game road trip -- the longest in franchise history. They stop on Long Island (Tues.), Broadway (Thurs.) and in New Jersey (Fri.) this week -- their first visit to the New York area since 2003. Teemu Selanne is expected to be in the lineup for the first time this season.

Meanwhile, another Western Conference team trying to right itself on the road is the Vancouver Canucks, who have fallen out of the top-eight playoff mix by way of losing nine of their last 11 games. They face the strange schedule of playing at Dallas on Tuesday and at Atlanta on Thursday before heading home for a Saturday divisional game against the surprising Colorado Avalanche.

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