Tuesday's game against the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers had all the makings of a rivalry matchup. The Caps squared off against the team that eliminated them from the playoffs in their last three appearances. While the Caps and Blueshirts traded goals, one thing they did not trade was punches.
“Our team, it’s not something we’ve been doing the last couple years," said Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault. "Fighting is always going to happen if you’re playing a rival team if there’s a cheap shot and stuff like that. It’s gonna happen."
In the first period of Tuesday's game, Alex Ovechkin took a stick jab to the groin from Rangers' defenseman Marc Staal.
Rivalry game? Check.
Cheap shot? Ovechkin thought so.
And yet, no fight. In fact, the Caps have not had a fight in any game this season and they're not alone.
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The Caps are one of four teams without a fight this season in what has become a growing trend for NHL teams. According to hockeyfights.com, through 180 NHL games this season there have been only 40 fights. The league is on pace for only 273 fights this season at a rate of one fight for every five games. That would be the lowest total since the site began tracking fights in the 2000-01 season.
Teams are just not dropping the gloves like they used to.
"I think if you look up and down the lineup there’s not many guys who are strictly fighters anymore," Brooks Orpik said. "The lineups are different that way. It’s just the way the game is played."
Seemingly gone are the days of the Donald Brashears, enforcers who could fight and contribute little else. The NHL is becoming faster and more skilled and that's forcing teams and general managers to change the way they construct their rosters.
“Really, it’s a question for general managers on how they want to build their teams and what they foresee their identity being," Brooks Laich said. "I think the guys that are still around that can throw the fists can also play very well and have some sort of role. It doesn’t mean other guys are scared to drop the mitts. There just aren’t guys who leave their stick in the locker room and go out there."
Tom Wilson has proven that he's not afraid to mix things up, but was told by Barry Trotz heading into the offseason that he needed to "elevate his game." He has to be able to do more than just fight. As a result, the scrappy winger who racked up 172 penalty minutes last season has only eight thus far.
If fighting is truly on its way out of the NHL, what sort of impact will that have on the sport's popularity? Fighting has undeniably been one of hockey's major draws. Can a league already struggling to keep pace with the NFL and NBA really afford for teams to abandon fighting?
"I don’t see too many fans turning away from the game because there’s not as much fighting," Orpik said. "I know some people argue that will be the case but I don’t think the game has been any better than it is right now."
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