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Fights! Hits! Penalties! Not even stars are immune to fighting in playoffs as stakes rise

New York Rangers' Brandon Prust (8) and Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson (65) collide during the second period of Game 2 of a first-round NHL hockey playoff series Saturday, April 14, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

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New York Rangers' Brandon Prust (8) and Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson (65) collide during the second period of Game 2 of a first-round NHL hockey playoff series Saturday, April 14, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

PHILADELPHIA - Sid the Kid could use a new nickname. How about, "Sugar" Sid Crosby. Or "Bonecrusher" or "Marvelous."

Sidney Crosby needs the kind of name that conjures up the image of the most iron-fisted of pugilists now that he's willing to scrap his way through the post-season if that's what it takes to help the Pittsburgh Penguins advance one more round.

Crosby has yet to have a signature scoring moment in the post-season. No dazzling goals. No brilliant flick of the wrist.

But he did go visor-to-visor with Philadelphia Flyers All-Star Claude Giroux ... and even threw some haymakers. Crosby got slapped with time in the penalty box.

But others around the league have received far worse punishments.

Rangers forward Carl Hagelin was suspended for three games for elbowing Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson in the head. Chicago Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw also got a three-game ban for charging Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith. Penguins forward Craig Adams has to sit out Game 4.

The moments etched in this post-season aren't the thrilling comebacks and tight series just yet. It's the fights that have escalated far above the norm for an average post-season. Head smashing, hair pulling, a barrage of cheap shots. Every player is the enemy, every player is a marked man.

Teams have slugged their way toward 804 penalty minutes through the first 22 post-season games, according to STATS LLC. The Flyers and Penguins rumbled to 158 minutes in Game 3; San Jose and St. Louis had 132 minutes in Game 2; and Ottawa and the New York Rangers compiled 54 minutes in Game 2.

Yes, some of the traditional penalties, like hooking, are in that mix.

The gloves, however, have come off at a rapid rate.

There was an average of 22 minutes, 25 seconds of penalty minutes per game in the regular season. Five teams (Vancouver, Philadelphia, San Jose, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh) have bettered that average in the still tiny sample size of the post-season. There have been 11 game misconducts in the playoffs.

The violence isn't part of the game, it has swallowed it like a group of hungry sharks. They're going to need a bigger penalty box.

"It's the playoffs and it's teams that don't like each other and it's going to be like that from time to time," Phoenix Coyotes forward Shane Doan said. "Everyone's talking about it, so I don't think anyone's too disappointed.

"It's playoff hockey. It just is."

The uptick in penalties has the league talking, viewers watching and league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan trying daily to sort out the mayhem.

Shanahan's $2,500 fine on Nashville's Shea Weber for smashing the head of Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg into the glass at the end of Game 1 of that series was a sign that it would be open season in the playoffs. Valued pieces like Crosby, Giroux, Weber, Detroit's Todd Bertuzzi are not immune to fighting anymore or afraid to take a major penalty—or even face a suspension—if it means getting a point across.

Bertuzzi stuck up for Zetterberg when he dropped the gloves with Weber in Game 2 and landed a good punch before they were separated.

The Senators clearly went into Game 2 against the Rangers looking for a fight, activating a goon like Matt Carkner and quickly went after it.

Retribution and retaliation are as much a part of the game as power plays and faceoffs.

After the melee in Game 3, Flyers forward Scott Hartnell accused the Penguins of "hitting to hurt."

"It's scary when it comes down to that level," he said. "It's not fun to play with that kind of stuff. You ask the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby, what they were thinking out there and he said, 'Well, that's playoff hockey.' For me, that's not playoff hockey. It's dangerous hockey, it's trying to hurt some people out there and it's scary. You've got to keep your head up at all times. Crosby comes in and grabs me from behind and another guy (Adams) comes and throws about eight bombs at the back of my head."

The days of the thuggish enforcer have largely gone away, leading to a Wild, Wild West code where every player fights (see, Crosby) and every player is fair game (see, Giroux).

"It used to be you had to deal with the 'tough guy,' and now you don't have to deal with it," Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. "It's more of a free game. It's an emotional game out there. It gets heated up, and that's what happens sometimes."

It's nasty out there. Hunter accused the Boston Bruins of headhunting Washington centre Nicklas Backstrom.

The fans love the raw emotion and the body blows. Game 3 of the Penguins-Flyers series was the most-watched hockey game outside of the Stanley Cup finals since 2002.

"It's very entertaining," Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov said.

It is, of course, for the blood-thirsty fans. The question is, are the early fights a sign of a game run amok and players simply resorting to any method to win, or just an aberration that will wind down as the grueling post-season goes deeper into spring.

"I just think it's a bunch of guys having a good time," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said.

"It looks like fun to me."

____

AP Sports Writers John Marshall in Glendale, Ariz., Howard Fendrich in Arlington, Va., and Larry Lage in Detroit contributed to this story.

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