The NHL issued an automatic 10-game suspension to Washington Capitals left wing Craig Berube yesterday for an incident in Monday's game against the New York Rangers, a move that seemingly caught all of the principals by surprise and ignited another round of claims by the Capitals that the league is biased toward them.

The suspension without pay, which is the longest in the NHL this season and one that will cost Berube more than $53,000, began with last night's 6-3 victory over Edmonton.

With 40 seconds left in the Capitals' 3-0 loss at Madison Square Garden, Berube and fellow tough guy Nick Kypreos got into a brawl, and each received a five-minute fighting penalty. Berube was deemed the instigator by referee Bill McCreary, thereby getting an extra two minutes plus a game misconduct. McCreary also believed that Berube left the bench specifically to fight.

"The videotape . . . supports Referee McCreary's judgment that Mr. Berube came on the ice for the express purpose of initiating an altercation with Mr. Kypreos," Brian Burke, the NHL's director of hockey operations, said in a statement. "The league will not tolerate this type of behavior."

The statement cites part of NHL Rule 66(a): "No player may leave the players' or penalty bench at any time during an altercation or for the purpose of starting an altercation." The statement goes on to say that "when a Rule 66 violation occurs, Rule 66(c) mandates an automatic 10-game suspension."

"It came as complete surprise to me," said Capitals General Manager David Poile. "It's ridiculous."

There was no talk of the incident in either dressing room after the game and Poile said he first heard about it late Tuesday afternoon. "I was stunned by the call from Brian Burke and still don't believe it today," he said.

A Rangers spokesman, when asked for a response to the "Berube-Kypreos incident" said: "What was that? I'm not sure what you're talking about."

Burke held a telephone hearing Wednesday with Poile, Coach Jim Schoenfeld and assistant coaches Keith Allain and Tod Button, Poile said.

Poile was advised of Burke's decision Thursday night at the Capitals' Christmas party. Berube knew nothing until Poile told him yesterday morning.

Berube, who has no goals, five assists and has a plus-1 rating in 20 games this season, referred all comments to his Florida-based agent, Larry Raush.

Raush said he spoke with NHL counsel Jeff Pash, who told him that they can have a hearing with Commissioner Gary Bettman. With the holidays, no date was set for the hearing.

Burke's ruling sparked anew Poile's claims that the league has one set of rules for the Capitals, another for the rest of the league. "Once again, it appears in my mind that we're being made an example of," Poile said. "Dale Hunter, a 21-game suspension. Now a 10-game suspension. Also in New York."

Poile believes this "bias" began with the Hunter incident in the 1993 playoffs, in which Hunter got a record 21-game suspension for a late hit on then-Islander Pierre Turgeon. It has continued, he believes, with other rulings involving the Capitals.

Berube's suspension is the longest in the NHL this season. The second-longest, eight games to Toronto's Tie Domi, also was issued for an infraction against a Ranger, after Domi sucker-punched New York's Ulf Samuelsson on Oct. 14.

Poile acknowledged that Berube was the "instigator of the fight. I agree with that. Two {minutes}, five {minutes}, game {misconduct}. Over and done. This is a game of hockey. It happens a hundred times a season."

Although the Capitals have a history with Burke, they seem to be developing one with McCreary, whom many people believe is the NHL's best referee.

In the Rangers game, he disallowed an apparent Capitals goal and allowed a Rangers goal that appeared to be illegally kicked in.

Last season, in a game in Philadelphia, Capitals defenseman Jim Johnson was slashed on the wrist by Flyers superstar Eric Lindros. McCreary, according to the Capitals, said Johnson's wrist accidentally was skated on. "Everybody whines but nobody else has gotten a 21-game suspension," Poile said.

"It was one punch with two of the renowned heavyweights. This was a nonevent. Ask Nick Kypreos, he'd be as surprised as anyone."