Another Throwdown?

Jamie Heward, Scott Mellanby
Washington's Jamie Heward, on top, grapples with Atlanta's Scott Mellanby during one of the many fights that broke out in a Nov. 22 game at Verizon Center. Mellanby received a one-game suspension for his actions. (Mitchell Layton - Getty Images)

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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2006

A promotional video on the Atlanta Thrashers' Web site provides the predictable primer for tonight's game against the Washington Capitals. Set to dramatic orchestra music, fighting highlights from last month's 4-2 Thrashers victory flash across the screen in slow motion, along with the words: "10 fighting majors . . . 7 game misconducts . . . 3 suspensions . . . Be there for the rematch."

Whether the expected sellout crowd at Philips Arena witnesses another round of bloody fisticuffs remains to be seen. But this much is clear: The Capitals, with 16 fighting majors over the past three weeks, are gaining a reputation as one of the NHL's toughest teams.

"I never tell anyone not to fight, and I never tell anyone to fight," Coach Glen Hanlon said. "We finish our checks, we play hard, we work hard and sometimes when that happens, the other team takes offense to it. If you have John Erskine and Donald Brashear in your lineup, you are likely going to have some fighting majors in there."

To be exact, the Capitals have 19 fighting majors this season, tied with the Phoenix Coyotes for third most in the league. That, after ranking near the bottom of the league with only three fighting majors through the season's first five weeks.

Only Anaheim (33) and St. Louis (22) have been penalized more for fighting.

The Capitals' players and coaches contend there has been no conscious effort to fight more frequently. But they didn't apologize for their behavior, either.

"Because we play physical, we get some guys pushing back," said Brashear, an enforcer who is one of hockey's best fighters. "That gets the emotions going. And we care for each other, so things happen. If one guy is in trouble, we are all in trouble."

Such a scenario is precisely what precipitated everything on Nov. 22 at Verizon Center. On that night, rookie defenseman Mike Green was targeted in the final minutes by a bigger player with a history of dirty play.

Atlanta's 6-foot-6, 245-pound defenseman Andy Sutton lined up Green, 6-1 and 208 pounds, along the boards. A player previously suspended for head-hunting, Sutton attempted to deliver a devastating hit to Green's head but instead landed only a glancing blow.

Frustrated by blowing a 2-0 lead and angered by Sutton's attempted dirty hit, the Capitals decided they had seen enough.

With 1 minute 2 seconds left in the game, three fights broke out simultaneously, highlighted by Brashear pounding Vitaly Vishnevski and opening a bloody gash on his head.

Two more erupted in the final seconds. Meantime, the coaches -- Hanlon and Atlanta's Bob Hartley -- exchanged verbal barbs across the Plexiglas separating the benches. Hanlon pointed at Hartley and flapped his arms like a chicken while Hartley mouthed the words, "Next time." The screaming continued in the hallway separating the teams' locker rooms.

In total, 176 penalty minutes were assessed between the teams.

NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell acted swiftly. He suspended Brashear, a repeat offender, for three games. He also doled out one-game bans to Washington's Brian Sutherby and Atlanta captain Scott Mellanby, each of whom was assessed instigator penalties. Hartley was fined $10,000 while Hanlon was slapped with a record $30,000 fine, the most ever assessed to a coach for an on-ice incident.

It's been 23 days since that memorable encounter. Nerves are still a bit raw. And it won't take much for tempers to flare up again. But as several players pointed out, it's just as likely nothing will happen.

Sutton is out indefinitely after undergoing ankle surgery last week, and another Atlanta combatant, Brad Larsen, is expected to miss the game because of an upper body injury, leaving the Thrashers with only one designated fighter, Eric Boulton.

Also, two standings points are simply too valuable for these teams. The Capitals are trying to keep pace in the playoff race while the division-leading Thrashers are under intense pressure to make their first postseason appearance.

"I always expect something," Brashear said. "But usually when you expect a lot of things like that, sometimes nothing happens. With the game the way it is nowadays, it's not like how it was before. Before, you knew something was going to happen. You knew when you go to their barn, they are going to dress some tough guys. But now they suspend you if you get an instigator, so it's hard to retaliate."

Asked if he was disappointed Sutton will be unable to play, Brashear said: "I certainly would have had my eye on him. Guys are harder to intimidate because of the rules now."

Brashear then flashed a menacing smile and added, "But I can still find a way."

Erskine agreed.

"A lot of times, there's a lot of hype for these games," he said. "They say there's going to be a lot of fights and it's going to be physical. And a lot of times, nothing comes out of it. But who knows? I guess we'll have to find out."

Hartley told reporters in Atlanta: "For us, every game is so important. It's business as usual for us and we need to play good hockey. Our focus is on winning the game. As business people, we have to look at our sport. Look at the [Steve] Moore incident in Vancouver. We should learn our lesson. There's a kid out of hockey, lawsuits everywhere, black marks all over our sport. We don't need this."

Tensions had begun building between the Southeast Division rivals last season. First, the Thrashers won, 7-3 and 8-1, on back-to-back nights in October. Then, the Capitals eliminated the Thrashers from playoff contention on the season's second-to-last day.

There's also the fact that division teams play eight times. The NHL wanted to foster rivalries through familiarity, and it's certainly working in this instance.

Although none in the Washington locker room could explain exactly why there've been more fights in recent games, they were all in agreement about one thing: They like what it says about them.

"I love the way we're playing now," captain Chris Clark said. "We've got that little edge. It's exciting."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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