Gloves are coming off in Round 1

The signature image of the opening games of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs has not been a dramatic overtime goal or an acrobatic save.

It was Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux, two of the league's best goal scorers and best-known victims of concussions, shedding their gloves and punching each other in the head Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia.

"I thought it was great," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "A couple of the best players in the world dropping the gloves, going at it. In the end, that's really playoff hockey, isn't it?"

That might have been true a generation ago. But after a season in which the NHL touted an increased emphasis on player safety and dozens of players were sidelined with concussions, the multitude of fights, dangerous hits and questionable tactics so far in the playoffs has been startling. It has also undercut one of the league's longstanding defenses against the continued existence of fighting: that in the playoffs, when the games matter most, fighting goes away.

''In all my years of watching the NHL, I've never seen a first round with this many shenanigans and problems for the league," said Neil Smith, the former general manager of the New York Rangers and now a television analyst.


The Crosby-Giroux fight was only a high-profile example. There have been crosschecks to the throat, a pro-wrestling style head slam and several elbows to heads. Entering Monday night's games, four players had been suspended, and 724 penalty minutes had been assessed, including 158 in Sunday's chaotic game between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

There were 11 game misconduct penalties during the first five days of this year's playoffs. In the entire 2011 postseason, there were only six. During the regular season, the average number of fights per game was .49, the lowest in five years. Through Sunday night, the average in this year's playoffs is .84.

Of the eight playoff series, there have been fights in five. Asked Monday if he felt this year's playoffs were more violent than previous editions, Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said: "No, I think it's a bunch of guys having a bunch of good times. I like watching it. Looks like good stuff to me."

But Babcock was furious a few days earlier, when Nashville defenseman Shea Weber put Henrik Zetterberg in a headlock and attempted to ram Zetterberg's head into the glass in the final seconds of the Predators' Game 1 win.

''I thought the incident wasn't part of hockey," Babcock said. "I haven't seen it since junior hockey, and I thought it was unacceptable. Sometimes when things don't get looked after, you have to look after it yourself. And I didn't think things were looked after at all."

After Weber was not suspended, receiving only a $2,500 fine, the Red Wings did look after things themselves. Todd Bertuzzi fought Weber 1 minute 36 seconds into Game 2, even though Detroit has had the fewest fighting majors in the league for the past eight seasons and does not employ an enforcer.

To some observers, the decision by Brendan Shanahan, the NHL vice president in charge of player discipline, not to suspend Weber opened the door for the weekend's raucousness.

Matt Carkner was inserted into Ottawa's lineup for Game 2 against the Rangers on Saturday to avenge unpenalized roughhousing by Brian Boyle in Game 1. After pummeling Boyle, Carkner was ejected, then suspended one game for "continuing to inflict punishment upon an opponent who was an unwilling combatant."


Neither Zetterberg nor Boyle was injured, but many injuries were sustained from penalized hits over the weekend. The Senators' captain, Daniel Alfredsson, sustained a concussion Saturday night in the second period when he was hit in the head by Rangers rookie Carl Hagelin, who was suspended for three games.

Vancouver's Byron Bitz was suspended two games last week for a head check on Los Angeles' Kyle Clifford, who has yet to return to the series. Phoenix goalie Mike Smith missed practice Monday after taking a hit to the head from Chicago's Andrew Shaw on Saturday, even though Smith was able to finish the game.

After he skated Monday morning with the Senators, Alfredsson, out for Game 3, defended some of the frontier justice employed during these playoffs.

''Every game is so close," said Alfredsson, a 16-year veteran. "You try to take every edge you can. Everyone is trying to finish their checks, and sometimes you get a whack from behind or a cross-check from behind. You see the guy in the corner the next time, he's lined up perfect for me to hit him. When you're in the heat of the moment, it's hard to pull up the reins sometimes."


In an interview on WFAN in New York on Monday morning, Shanahan stressed that the health of the victims of questionable hits factored into his rulings on suspensions, as was the case with Hagelin.

The NHL formed a player safety department before the start of the season, and Shanahan was widely praised for the strict suspensions he levied in his first couple of months, for his video explanations of suspensions and for various presentations to players that clearly delineated the league's more comprehensive rules governing hits to the head and boarding. But in recent months he was seen as stepping back from his previous tough stance, and the Rangers criticized him Sunday for the inconsistency of discipline decisions.



The next up to face Shanahan are Pittsburgh forwards James Neal and Arron Asham, who have hearings Tuesday to review actions in Sunday's game in Philadelphia. Asham cross-checked Brayden Schenn in the throat, then punched him when he was down on the ice. Neal repeatedly took runs at Flyers players late in the third period, leading to more scuffles between the rival teams.

"I think he's been doing a good job overall over the course of the year," Red Wings defenseman Kyle Quincey said of Shanahan. "And I am sure he's not done yet. I think there will be more to come. It's playoff hockey. Everyone wants to win, and there's some frustrations and emotions."


Flyers forward Daniel Briere said he was certain the customers were satisfied by the mayhem. Game 3 of the feisty Flyers-Penguins series drew a 2.7 rating on NBC, up from the 1.3 a Rangers-Capitals playoff game drew at the same juncture a year ago.

''You come to a game, you want to see passionate players and teams going at it," Briere said.

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