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Is fighting on its way out of the NHL?

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Is fighting on its way out of the NHL?

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."

Is it?

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."

MORE CAPITALS: Holtby shoulders blame for loss to Rangers

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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

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USA Today Sports

The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

Tuesday’s practice was a lot like every other for the Caps until the end. After working on the power play, the team gathered at one end of the ice and began working on faceoffs. It was not just the centers, but wingers and defensemen alike got into the action with every win celebrated by loud cheers from teammates.

It should could as no surprise to see faceoffs as a point of emphasis for Washington considering just how much the team has struggled with them in the early season. The Caps rank 30th in the league in faceoff win percentage at only 43.8-percent.

“Yeah, there's little details that can help our game,” Lars Eller told reporters after practice. “The more you have the puck, easier the game is gonna be for you. We have a little more time in between games than usual during the season here, so we have the time to work on something like that, which can be little things that makes the difference.”

The team as a whole watched video on faceoffs prior to practice and then worked as a five-man unit during the drill. The main point of emphasis head coach Todd Reirden wanted to drill into his players was that faceoffs are not simply the responsibility of the centers alone.

“The days of it just being center vs. center and a clean draw being won back are a rarity now so it's important to have all five guys helping, something we watched video on earlier today,” Reirden said.

“You ask any centerman if they have a good group of wingers that can help them out on draws, that makes a huge difference,” Nic Dowd said. “I've been lucky, I have [Devante Smith-Pelly] on my right and I'm a righty so I win all my draws my backhand side so a lot of pucks go his way and he wins a lot of draws for me. That's huge. You have a guy that's sitting over there that's sleeping, you could go easily from five wins to five losses and then that's your night. It makes a big difference.”

Faceoffs were always going to be more of a struggle for the Caps this season with the departure of Jay Beagle who was, by far, the team’s best faceoff man for several years. Whenever the team needed a big draw, Beagle was the player relied upon to win it. With him gone, it is no surprise to see the team struggle.

But the Caps don’t like the idea of keeping possession off a draw just 43.8-percent of the time.

“It's essentially like the ref is creating a 50-50 puck and you snap it back, you get possession, now you're forechecking and it makes a huge difference,” Dowd said. “You play against those top lines, they want to be in the O-zone. Well, if you lose the draw, now you're playing D-zone, you win the draw now you're playing O-zone. So effectively, you've shut down their shift.”

There is a school of thought suggesting that perhaps the importance of winning faceoffs is overrated and a team’s faceoff win percentage is not overly important. Eller himself admitted as much to reporters.

What no one can argue, however, is that while some faceoffs may not matter all that much, there are some that are hugely important in a game. The Caps recognize that. For them, being a strong faceoff team is not necessarily about improving the team’s win percentage, but more about being able to win those critical draws.

“It's something that for the most part the players understand and a neutral zone faceoff with 14 minutes to go in the first period is not nearly as important as one that's 5-on-6 at the end of the game,” Reirden said. “We all know that. It's important to put the right people on those situations and give them the best chance to have success.”

“A center ice draw, I could see where guys could make the argument, well you lose it you still will play hockey and stuff could still happen,” Dowd said. “But I think the game is such a possession game now that any opportunity you can win a 50-50 puck whether that's a faceoff or a board battle, it makes a huge difference.”

 

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

Like it or not, the NHL is becoming younger, louder, and more personable. And as its young stars begin to gain leadership positions, the demand from a younger subset of fans grows larger: Make hockey fun again. Let players have personality on the ice and off, be it through social media engagement, game-day fashion, or creative goal celebrations.

Some say that hockey was always fun. True, to an extent. 

Minute per game minute, you arguably can’t find a faster, more action-packed major sport. But among the North American leagues, and internationally, the NBA still dominates on Twitter activity and in its social media. 

One of the biggest factors that helped basketball succeed in the social age wasn’t the NHL’s commonly preached conformity.

The NBA found huge success in marketing its star players as larger-than-life, letting them have public personas that tied into larger, richer narratives spanning careers, teams, and decades.

Superstar Auston Matthews, the up-and-coming 21-year-old face of American hockey, has taken note, citing NBA star Russell Westbrook’s individuality as a source of inspiration in a recent GQ feature

He’s well met by former USA National Team Development Program teammates Jack Eichel, who was recently named captain of the Buffalo Sabres; Dylan Larkin, Detroit’s hometown darling who’s stepping up as an assistant captain for the Red Wings; and Matthew Tkachuk, who’s also wearing an A in Calgary.

It’s not only the born and bred American youngsters who are ready to stand out. The team responsible for the resurgence of the debate about how much fun is too much is none other than the Washington Capitals, whose summer celebrations led to the ban of the legendary Cup Stand.

Though the publicity of their championship celebrations was revolutionary, the Capitals hold more promise in amount of fun per sixty. After a title win, their petty grudges are only transforming into a bold sense of self-confidence.

Alex Ovechkin is already a superstar on a mission to grab the attention of all the boys and girls and babes in the hockey world. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s interviews and celebrations reveal a player growing into the spotlight, ready to embrace a downright devious kind of skill against his opponents. Braden Holtby is already a league-recognized style icon whose meticulously chosen plaid suits and well-groomed beard have woven into the hype of game-day coverage. And Nicklas Backstrom is finally smiling on-camera.

(This isn’t even mentioning highly polarizing figure Tom Wilson, whose aggressive approach on the ice has earned him the marking of a player everyone hates unless he’s on their team.)

If the NHL wants to appeal to new viewers, it can gain ground by marketing its stars outside of a bland, monotone mold for success. 

With high-scoring, chaotically delightful games that happen almost every night all across the continent, an audience needs something to anchor them.

Individuality isn’t a bad place to start.

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