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Kovacevic: NHL fights packing extra punch

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, 10:48 p.m.
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Krys Barch of the New Jersey Devils and Deryk Engelland of the Pittsburgh Penguins trade punches during their first period fight at the Prudential Center on Feb. 9, 2013 in Newark, New Jersey. Jim McIsaac | Getty Images

Here's a number that might surprise some: The Penguins have been involved in just four fights this season, third lowest total in the NHL.

Think it should have been more?

Yeah, might have a little something to do with the timing and, ahem, impact of those fights.

Tanner Glass and the Rangers' Arron Asham dropped the gloves right off the opening draw Jan. 20 at Madison Square Garden, then whaled away at each other's helmeted skulls for 52 spirited seconds. I won't lie, I was as mesmerized up in that press box as the thousands standing and roaring in the blue seats.

Somehow, Deryk Engelland and the Maple Leafs' Colton Orr topped it three nights later at Consol Energy Center. This one was heavyweight in every way, two big boys trading roundhouse blows for a minute, 20 seconds.

Both matches went toe to toe, both were as intense as I've seen in a long time, and I can tell you that opinion was shared far and wide in the hockey world.

“Oh, yeah, we all saw those,” Chris Thorburn, the Jets' resident tough guy, was telling me a couple of weeks ago in Winnipeg. “Those kinds of battles, believe me, that gets everyone's attention.”

No kidding, huh?

Notice how opponents aren't taking many runs, cheap shots or even post-whistle pokes at Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin?

The captain's noticed. And he doesn't see a coincidence.

“Yeah, I think we've tried to establish that physical presence,” Crosby said before laughing and adding, “Well, not me personally. But to see Glass step up there against Ash the way he did, those were two tough guys going at it to help their team … what Engo does for us … that's the kind of stuff that you build on as a team, that you always like seeing.”

Not everyone likes fighting in the NHL. I'm on record with my view that, if the league were capable of enforcing its own rule book, it would be best off banning fighting. But this league, of course, isn't capable of interpreting a simple boarding rule, much less enforcing, you know, a whole compendium of such stuff.

Fighting isn't going anywhere. In fact, it's on the rise.

And you know what?

I'm OK with that, so long as it continues to be as purposeful, painless and … well, as dignified as it's been in the first quarter of this season.

No, really.

If you follow the tenets of what fighting is supposed to do — and I mean in the hockey sense rather than for entertainment, perhaps with some willful naivete — a lot of this adds up: Through Saturday's afternoon games, there have been 97 fights this season for an average of 0.63 per game. That's the highest average since 0.64 in 2003-04, according to the database at HockeyFights.com, and it's way up from the 0.44 last season that set a five-year low. At the same time, there have been only 21 multiple-fight games, a pace for the lowest such total since 2006-07.

Conclusion: It's one and done most nights. The fights are happening to send a message, a practice that's much more within the traditional culture than, say, those mindless line brawls with the Islanders a couple years ago. It's mostly business now.

Wait, there's more. A whopping 57 of those 97 fights this season have come in the first period, including all four for the Penguins. Twenty of those came in the initial three minutes and six of them right off the opening draw.

Further conclusion: Same as above. One and done. Send the message early, and move on.

Engelland's noticed. He went nearly a month between fights, from Orr to his fairly even bout Saturday with the Devils' Krys Barch.

“It does feel like there have been more fights right off the bat than normal, all around the league,” Engelland said. “It's something I keep an eye on, and I don't recall too many that have happened outside the first five to 10 minutes.”

He grinned under that still darkened right eye from Orr.

“It's funny, I always hear how fighting's dying, but I don't think it is.”

At the same time …

“I don't think it's just about fighting. We always talk about team toughness in here. You've seen Sid this week go after Anton Volchenkov and give him a shot because Volchenkov went after Geno. We've all got each other's backs.”

Right, but even that boldness stems in part from knowing they've got teammates to handle the real ultra-violence.

Fighting isn't pretty. It isn't ideal. I'll repeat: The NHL would be better off without it.

But the reality that it's still viewed within the game as a necessity — very passionately, at that — should be pinned on those who still haven't found less barbaric ways to police the game. Not on the participants themselves.

If anything, they're handling the duty better than ever.

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