What's new in the NHL certainly isn't the fact that the Washington Capitals got stuck in the blocks in their opener; they're 5-9 career in Game One, 1-10-2 in Game Two. (Contemplating their infirmed Octobers and Aprils, recent Capitals seasons remind me of a mouthwatering overstuffed sandwich between two slices of stale bread.)

No, what's new in the NHL this season is a serious attempt to eliminate the kind of Pier 6 brawling that turned the Canadiens-Flyers playoff series into a steel cage wrestlemania. Surely you remember Montreal and Philadelphia engaging in the Great White North version of the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies. Getting the jump on the night's regularly scheduled card, this particular fight started in pregame warmups.

Claude Lemieux and Shayne Corson were honoring their personal superstitions by shooting the puck into the opposition's empty net when Ed Hospodar and Chico Resch displayed their own cute superstitions by gangstering Lemieux and Corson. In a flash, hordes of hockey players, some wearing just skivvies and skates -- make a bold fashion statement, eh? -- had rushed onto the ice to duke it out. On and on they fought: during the game, between periods, later on in the hotel lobby; for all I know, they're fighting still. (No big deal. Some guys need a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. Real hockey players can't get started without blood trickling down the bridge of their noses. As hockey sociologist Phil Esposito once remarked, "If they took away our sticks and gave us brooms, we'd still have fights.")

Anyway, the spectacle was such an embarrassment to the NHL that a new rule was written that imposes costly penalties not only on players who bolt from the bench to get in a few good licks, but on their coaches, too. (Give the NHL credit for knowing where the responsibility for fighting lies. Most of these coaches send the players over the boards like it's the landing on Omaha Beach.) First player off the bench draws a 10-game suspension; his coach, a five-gamer. Second player in gets five games off; his coach, three. We're talking serious sabbaticals. A 10-gamer bites off one-eighth of the season. Bad enough that one of your players gets the heave, but don't you think coaches are terrified about getting suspended? What if whoever replaces them wins five in a row? Yo, coach, phone call for you. Says he's Wally Pipp.

Coincidentally, on the same page as the story about the league's antibrawl rule, The Post's Robert Fachet reported on Capitals farmhand Jim Thompson, who last season logged 41 fights and 395 penalty minutes in 67 games. Admitting his "hands get sore after a while," Thompson reflected on his role as a goon, "A lot of times you fight the same guy, like it's part of the game. I fought Jay Fraser of Rochester eight times last year. It got to be where he'd skate up and say, 'How are you Jim?' and away we'd go."

Will the new rule stop this?

No.

The new rule is there to stop brawls, not fights. Fights are always welcome here. This is Miller Time. This ain't no disco, eh?

"It seems to me," observed Craig Laughlin, "the fans want to see fighting."

Who, after all, is kidding whom?

David Poile, the Capitals' general manager, conceded, "If we wanted to take fighting out of the game, we'd have done it. I wouldn't be against eliminating it altogether, but I'm in the minority. There's still the belief that fighting serves a purpose in the game."

Shoppers in my aisle think the NHL is afraid that, without fighting, they've got soccer on the rocks. As in: Anybody got a forwarding address for the NASL?

Fan: "What time's the game tonight?"

Ticket Window: "What time would you like us to send the limo for you?"

College hockey doesn't tolerate fighting. You fight, you're tossed for that game; the next one, too. It's working great in college. On the flip side, maybe I just have bad reception, but it's been a while since I've seen college hockey on CBS, NBC or ABC. I don't know, what, 25 or 30 years?

People like Poile and Bryan Murray, well-meaning people, not violent sorts themselves, think that wouldn't work in the NHL. Strangely enough, Murray says, the one-on-one fight can function for law enforcement: "When you throw people out for fighting, everybody becomes a tough guy. They put the stick to you, knowing if you retaliate you'll be off the ice. When fighting's tolerated, at least I have a recourse."

Poile and Murray also concur that tossing one-on-one fighters can foster a competitive unbalance that would penalize civil teams like the Capitals. "The trades are never even," Murray said, warning, "You'll send one of your lesser players after one of my stars just to sucker him into a fight and get him ejected."

Poile believes fighting is gradually being weaned from the game, anyway, and high-tech is to thank. First helmets, now visors. You can break your hand landing a roundhouse on those shields. (Soon at drive-ins everywhere: "Gardol Meets The Zamboni" starring Pat LaFontaine.) It's times like this when Dave Schultz probably sits back and reflects on how lucky he was to have played in an era when it was still possible for a hardworking guy to punch somebody's teeth out just for the fun of it.