Thanks to nastyjawing and clawing, fighting penalties are up—proof that old-time, hard-nosedplayoff hockey is back
GIVEN HOW oftenAnaheim has sent Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo sprawling in their WesternConference semifinal series, it appears that the NHL has waived itsthree-knockdown rule for the 2007 playoffs. Late in the second period of Game 2last Friday, pint-sized Ducks forwards Ryan Shannon and Andy McDonald tookturns going hard to the net and crashing into Luongo. The response waspredictable: Canucks defenseman Willie Mitchell and Anaheim left wing ChrisKunitz exchanged gloved punches and heated words over the linesman trying toseparate them; and following his team's double-overtime 2--1 win, Vancouvergeneral manager Dave Nonis complained to the league about the Ducks' runninghis goalie. Actually, considering the current zeitgeist, it wouldn't have beenshocking if Mitchell and Kunitz had reached under their jerseys and whipped outnunchakus.
Theseplayoffs—unlike recent kinder, gentler postseasons—have roiled with anger.Old-time hockey has returned with a gap-toothed snarl, revealing the passionthat 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 thatset off a Canadiens-Flyers brawl before Game 6 of their 1987 conferencefinals.
Even seniorexecutive vice president Colin Campbell, the NHL's lord of discipline, has beensurprised by the increase in physical play. "In the course of theplayoffs," he says, "you'll normally have one or two suspensions or oneseries that will heat up, like Toronto and the Islanders' did in 2002. But thisyear, for whatever reason, we're seeing things we haven't seen since the 1980sand early '90s."
Through Sundayreferees had called 24 fighting majors in 53 games, compared with 27 in theentire 2006 playoffs, some involving unusual suspects such as forwards MikeComrie (three previous fights in six seasons) and Dean McAmmond (seven in 14years) of Ottawa, and Jamie Langenbrunner (10 in 12 seasons) of New Jersey. Theleague had also suspended three players for a total of nine games—includingCalgary's otherwise placid backup goaltender Jamie McLennan, who received fivegames for his Bunyanesque swipe at Detroit's Johan Franzen in Game 5 of theirfirst-round series—and levied $125,000 in fines, compared to no suspensions and$5,000 in fines all last spring.
There have alsobeen threats, such as Rangers left wing Sean Avery's Mike Tyson--likedeclaration before the second-round series with Buffalo that he would"hurt" the Sabres. Coaches such as Devils assistant John MacLean andthe Lightning's John Tortorella have been chirping at each other from thebenches. Calgary captain Jarome Iginla seemed to be goading the Red Wings intodropping their gloves at the end of Game 5 in the first round. And there was anear brawl between the Ducks and the Wild when enforcers George Parros andDerek Boogaard confronted each other at center ice before Game 5. If nothingelse, the normal arc of a seven-game series as described by Campbell—an earlyfeeling-out giving way to sparks in the middle games followed by a tamping downof emotion in the last two—has been shelved. Now there can be any sort oferuption at any time.
"A lot ofpeople talked about how they missed the extracurricular things—the scrums, thephysical play—and maybe [that perspective] was a bit true during the last tworegular seasons," Detroit winger Kirk Maltby says. "But it definitelyseems like there's more physical stuff, more battles in front of the net and inthe corners [this year]. It's been fun to watch."
Among the theoriesfor the reemergence of old-school hockey:
• Parity. San Josecoach Ron Wilson believes that eighth-seeded Edmonton's run to Game 7 of the2006 Stanley Cup finals altered the NHL's collective mind-set, if not itslandscape. "More teams now honestly believe they can win the Cup," saysWilson, whose Sharks fought a first-round tong war against Nashville thispostseason. "And if a team thinks it can win, it will do anything totry."
• The game took awhile to recalibrate after the lockout. Rangers coach Tom Renney says playersneeded time to internalize the rule changes before feeling free enough to dowhat—in the playoffs, anyway—always seemed natural before. Campbell takes itfurther. "They came back as brothers-in-arms, friendly from their meetings[during the lockout]," he posits. "The aggression was gone after theyear away."
• The memory ofTodd Bertuzzi's assault on Steve Moore has faded. For his on-ice mugging of theAvalanche's Moore in March 2004, Bertuzzi received a 20-game suspension fromthe league and, after he pleaded guilty to assault, a year's probation pluscommunity service. "That was pretty fresh in their minds last year,"Campbell says. "It made players realize that their [actions in games] werenot [necessarily confined] to the rinks and might have implicationsoutside."
Campbell, whomonitors matches from the NHL's Toronto office, dispatches supervisors to eachseries to pass on league advisories in an effort to prevent a game or a seriesfrom turning ugly. But playoff hockey has a will of its own, as Campbell andNHL senior vice president of hockey operations Mike Murphy, two former playersand coaches, saw when they watched a first-round playoff game together. "Iturned to him and said, 'They don't care what we're saying. They don't evencare what we do. All they want to do is win ... and they'll push theenvelope,'" says Campbell. "And we would too, if we were in theirshoes."
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Pierre McGuire's In the Crease
The ascendancy of 23-year-old Thomas Vanek (right)continues. After the Sabres' left wing was scratched from eight of his team's18 playoff games last year as an overmatched rookie, Vanek led Buffalo with 43goals and an NHL-best +47 rating during the regular season. Through Sunday hehad five goals in his last six playoff games, including the game-winner in eachof the Sabres' first two victories against the Rangers. Vanek has developedinto one of the league's most dangerous scorers from the face-off dots in....The most successful franchises in the NHL over the last 12 years have been NewJersey and Detroit, with three Stanley Cups each. They're also the two havingthe most trouble selling playoff tickets; both were playing home games in frontof thousands of empty seats. That's nothing new for the Devils, but the RedWings, like many of their fans, are suffering from the downturn in the Detroiteconomy.... Maybe voting for the Hart Trophy should take the playoffs intoaccount. Does anyone now doubt that Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo is theleague's MVP? At week's end Luongo (left) had a postseason-best 31.9 saves pergame and a .941 save percentage.... The Stars made a smart move when theybrought back ultraprepared coach Dave Tippett for the final year of hiscontract despite Dallas's third consecutive first-round playoff exit. ButTippett may need to be more offensive-minded. Teams that rely on the Stars'style of stifling defense—at the expense of offensive flow—haven't prospered inthe playoffs in the postlockout NHL.
FACE-OFFS Mitchell (right) got personal with Kunitz, and Avery (bottom) agitated Buffalo.
[See caption above]
LOU CAPOZZOLA (VANEK)
DARREN CARROLL (LUONGO)