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|Players are fighting early and often this NHL season.|
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 18 One Day One Game issue. Subscribe today!
A SHORTER SEASON apparently equals shorter fuses for NHL players, who have come out swinging in 2013. The number of fights per game has spiked, from 0.44 in 2011-12 to 0.55 through Feb. 25 -- while the percentage of games with fights (41.4 percent) is the league's highest since 2001-02.
The poster boy for pugilism? Sharks forward Ryane Clowe, who racked up 35 penalty minutes, including a fighting major, in one game on Jan. 27 and was suspended two games for leaving the bench to start a fight with Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw on Feb. 22. Clowe attributes the extra combativeness to pent-up frustration from the four-month lockout. "After the first few games, when players were getting their stamina back, the games got tight and physical," he says. "You're so energized and hyped up to be playing again."
It's telling that 79 fights (52.3 percent) have gone down in the first period, 22 of those within the initial three minutes and six off the opening draw. "You're seeing more try-to-get-an-advantage and setting-the-tone fights," says Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. Anaheim defenseman Bryan Allen, on the other hand, believes the fisticuffs are still triggered more by emotion than strategy. "We all know there's a lot on the line every game this year," he says. "You lose a couple of games and it's a big swing in the standings."
Expect the swings to keep on coming. In most seasons, fighting tapers off as the playoffs approach. But clearly this is not a normal season. "When you get to the last 10 games of the season, discipline becomes paramount," says Gulutzan. "But you'll still see fights if there are races down the stretch and teams are looking for any edge."
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