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Michael Farber
May 07, 2007
Fighting Words
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May 07, 2007

The Nhl

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Fighting Words

Thanks to nasty jawing and clawing, fighting penalties are up—proof that old-time, hard-nosed playoff hockey is back

GIVEN HOW often Anaheim has sent Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo sprawling in their Western Conference semifinal series, it appears that the NHL has waived its three-knockdown rule for the 2007 playoffs. Late in the second period of Game 2 last Friday, pint-sized Ducks forwards Ryan Shannon and Andy McDonald took turns going hard to the net and crashing into Luongo. The response was predictable: Canucks defenseman Willie Mitchell and Anaheim left wing Chris Kunitz exchanged gloved punches and heated words over the linesman trying to separate them; and following his team's double-overtime 2--1 win, Vancouver general manager Dave Nonis complained to the league about the Ducks' running his goalie. Actually, considering the current zeitgeist, it wouldn't have been shocking if Mitchell and Kunitz had reached under their jerseys and whipped out nunchakus.

These playoffs—unlike recent kinder, gentler postseasons—have roiled with anger. Old-time hockey has returned with a gap-toothed snarl, revealing the passion that simmers at the game's core. "I haven't seen anything like this since [ Montreal's] Claude Lemieux was shooting pucks into the other team's net," says Red Wings defenseman Mathieu Schneider, referring to the provocation that set off a Canadiens-Flyers brawl before Game 6 of their 1987 conference finals.

Even senior executive vice president Colin Campbell, the NHL's lord of discipline, has been surprised by the increase in physical play. "In the course of the playoffs," he says, "you'll normally have one or two suspensions or one series that will heat up, like Toronto and the Islanders' did in 2002. But this year, for whatever reason, we're seeing things we haven't seen since the 1980s and early '90s."

Through Sunday referees had called 24 fighting majors in 53 games, compared with 27 in the entire 2006 playoffs, some involving unusual suspects such as forwards Mike Comrie (three previous fights in six seasons) and Dean McAmmond (seven in 14 years) of Ottawa, and Jamie Langenbrunner (10 in 12 seasons) of New Jersey. The league had also suspended three players for a total of nine games—including Calgary's otherwise placid backup goaltender Jamie McLennan, who received five games for his Bunyanesque swipe at Detroit's Johan Franzen in Game 5 of their first-round series—and levied $125,000 in fines, compared to no suspensions and $5,000 in fines all last spring.

There have also been threats, such as Rangers left wing Sean Avery's Mike Tyson--like declaration before the second-round series with Buffalo that he would "hurt" the Sabres. Coaches such as Devils assistant John MacLean and the Lightning's John Tortorella have been chirping at each other from the benches. Calgary captain Jarome Iginla seemed to be goading the Red Wings into dropping their gloves at the end of Game 5 in the first round. And there was a near brawl between the Ducks and the Wild when enforcers George Parros and Derek Boogaard confronted each other at center ice before Game 5. If nothing else, the normal arc of a seven-game series as described by Campbell—an early feeling-out giving way to sparks in the middle games followed by a tamping down of emotion in the last two—has been shelved. Now there can be any sort of eruption at any time.

"A lot of people talked about how they missed the extracurricular things—the scrums, the physical play—and maybe [that perspective] was a bit true during the last two regular seasons," Detroit winger Kirk Maltby says. "But it definitely seems like there's more physical stuff, more battles in front of the net and in the corners [this year]. It's been fun to watch."

Among the theories for the reemergence of old-school hockey:

? Parity. San Jose coach Ron Wilson believes that eighth-seeded Edmonton's run to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup finals altered the NHL's collective mind-set, if not its landscape. "More teams now honestly believe they can win the Cup," says Wilson, whose Sharks fought a first-round tong war against Nashville this postseason. "And if a team thinks it can win, it will do anything to try."

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