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Despite talk of fighting ban, NHL players, coaches enjoyed Rangers-Devils brawl

Rugged Montreal Canadiens winger Ryan White watched the brawl off the opening faceoff between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils on television Monday night and called it "awesome."

"You don't see it very often. A lot of people don't really like it, but I bet the people at Madison Square Garden liked it. I liked it," White said. "I thought it was pretty cool. There were some big boys going at it, that's for sure."

The National Hockey League also apparently liked it, with the video of the donnybrook getting feature billing on the league's website and no fines or suspensions issued.

Even as both Hockey Canada and Hockey USA look at ways to reduce fighting, at least in minor and junior hockey, there was not a hint of disapproval of the mass brawl in New York among NHL players and coaches Tuesday.

"You see that the game is changing," said Montreal tough guy Brad Staubitz. "They're talking about taking fighting out of the game in junior and everything.

"I don't know if we'll see (brawls) too often anymore, but it is an exciting part of hockey."

Even a skill player liked the New York islanders' John Tavares enjoyed the mayhem.

"I can understand from both those teams, playing against them a lot and being in the New York area and what those rivalries are like," he said. "You don't see that so much any more, a few fights right off the draw like that. It really brings the intensity and the passion into the game.

"It's almost better to get it out of the way off the bat and play the game."

Actor and former wrestler Bill Goldberg gave his thumbs up with a link to the video on Twitter, writing: ''My favourite sport---) Devils vs. Rangers in bloody brawl off opening faceoff.''

While spontaneous fights are likely to happen no matter what penalties are in place, the main focus of the anti-fighting lobby is staged fights, where players are sent onto the ice to start bouts or when coaches match up their tough guys for a faceoff. Even the NHL has discussed bans on staged fights, but it has never been put into the rulebook.

The melee in New York certainly qualified as staged.

To recap, when Rangers coach John Tortorella saw that Devils counterpart Peter DeBoer had his tough guys in his starting lineup, he sent out his scrappers as well. He even moved centre Brandon Dubinsky back to defence so Stu Bickel could be at the front of the action.

Three fights erupted off the opening faceoff with Bickel squaring off with Ryan Carter, Michael Rupp taking on Eric Boulton and Brandon Prust going toe-to-toe with Cam Janssen.

The Rangers won the game 4-2, clinched a playoff spot and evened the season series between the clubs at three wins apiece.

Later, DeBoer harkened back to the teams' meeting Feb. 7 in New Jersey, when he said Tortorella started his fighters and the Devils responded in kind. Two bouts broke out only two seconds in, with Janssen taking on Rupp and Boulton going with Prust. New Jersey won that game 1-0.

While the fiery Tortorella shouted at DeBoer from the bench on Monday night, the Devils' coach responded that he must have a short memory or be a hypocrite to complain about putting tough guys in the starting lineup.

On Tuesday, Tortorella told reporters that DeBoer should "shut up" and that "the situation last night was disrespectful to the players and I think we took a step backwards."

He said staged fighting has "gotten old for me."

However, according to www.hockeyfights.com, the Rangers lead the NHL with 62 fighting majors this season, five more than Boston. The Devils are eighth with 38. Prust is tied with Boston's Shawn Thornton for the league lead with 19 fighting majors.

The website notes that overall fighting is down from 0.52 per game last season to 0.46 and games with more than one fight have dropped more sharply, although that may pick up as teams battle for playoff spots in the final three weeks of the season.

The brawl seems to be a clear sign that intensity is on the upswing with the playoffs approaching. The first-place Rangers and sixth-place Devils may end up facing one another at some point in the post-season.

"It looked like a playoff game to me," said White. "Both teams sent the message that you don't want to play seven games against us."

Canadiens coach Randy Cunneyworth, whose team has become more physical since he replaced Jacques Martin in mid-season, said he had no problem with the brawl or the tactic of putting fighters in the starting lineup, depending on the circumstances.

"All players are tough, but you can elevate that level," he said. "It brings out a high level of competition from the guys."

Islanders coach Jack Capuano called it "playoff hockey."

"You see the grit and determination and when that happens, I'm sure both coaches are proud of their guys—that they stepped up and they answered the bell and they accepted the challenge. It's that time of year where those two teams could see each other in the playoffs again and they want to make a statement. It's the way the game is played. Certain guys have certain roles on their hockey team and they did what they had to do."

Islanders defenceman Travis Hamonic added: "as a fan of hockey I thought it was pretty cool. ... Those things happen. Hopefully you're not on the other side of a beating."

Such brawls are rare, but a game last season between Boston and Dallas had three fights in the opening four seconds.

They are more dangerous to the combatants because with six players fighting at once and only two linesmen on hand to intervene, the chances of a serious injury are increased.

White said it helped that all six were experienced fighters.

"You don't have the same protection if there's more than one fight going on, but those guys all know how to take care of themselves pretty good," he said. "And they all did pretty well.

"Toward the end, Prust and Janssen had enough respect for each other not to be tagging each other when they're tired and stuff like that."

---

With files from Chris Johnston in Toronto

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