MONTREAL - The fists are flying in the NHL this season.
The NHL handed out 230 fighting majors through Sunday (201 games), up from 167 through the same number of games last year. All around the league, tough guys are taking names and leaving lumps.
The surge in fisticuffs early this season flies into the face of what had been happening. Fights have steadily gone down the last few years, especially after the lockout. In fact, this year's pace is still behind the pre-lockout numbers. There were 299 fighting majors handed out in 2003-04 through the same number of games.
But the numbers are back up this season.
"I think some of the old mentality is back into the new game," said Sabres tough guy Andrew Peters. "I think after the lockout teams were tinkering with the idea of carrying one (enforcer) or not carrying one at all. But you have to have someone there to protect your skilled guys. Maybe not every night, but maybe 50 or 60 games."
Players like Toronto's Wade Belak, a tough guy who has seen limited action this season, point to the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks' brand of brawn and skill.
"I think Anaheim proved it's beneficial to have a tough team, they're a well-skilled team and they're a tough team to play against," Belak said Monday after practice in Toronto. "I think that makes a good recipe for a Stanley Cup-winning team - you fear both the skill of the team and the guys they have in the lineup.
"Right after the lockout there was such a dramatic change in the rules, everybody just kind of panicked and started going with the Buffalo theory of the small, speedy guys and the fighters weren't having a chance to go out there and play," he added. "I think now you see that you do need that toughness in the lineup and it doesn't matter how hard they try to get rid of it with the rules and stuff, it's never going to change."
Echoed Buffalo Sabres forward Adam Mair. "It seems like a lot of teams try to pattern themselves after teams that were successful."
The Ducks led the NHL with 71 fighting majors last season, blowing away the rest of the league. Phoenix was second with 47.
The Ducks aren't winning as much this season. But they're still fighting. Prior to play Monday night, the Ducks led the league with 16 fighting majors, four ahead of Calgary.
"We play a physical style and backing that up is an important part in how we play," Ducks GM Brian Burke told The Canadian Press from Anaheim. "My teams have always played a certain way and I don't apologize for that. This isn't new."
The Detroit Red Wings went most of last season without a traditional tough guy and it certainly didn't hurt their record as they won the Western Conference. But this season, tough guy Aaron Downey is patrolling the Detroit wing.
"Downs came in as a free agent made our team in camp," Wings head coach Mike Babcock said. "He knows how to play, he's a competitive, hard-working kid who gives our guys breathing room. And our guys like having him around."
Downey fought San Jose Kyle McLaren in an Oct. 18 game, apparently believing the Sharks defenceman got a little overzealous with his checking on Wings star Henrik Zetterberg.
"It's called protecting your investment, you want your players to feel safe and that's what guys like myself are here for," said Buffalo's Peters.
Still, not all teams are dressing a heavyweight. The Canadiens, for example, are going without one after letting Downey leave last summer. And they were 28th in the league with only four fighting majors before Monday's game with the Sabres.
"My style of hockey has always been to go out on the ice to prevent goals and score goals. Not to fight," said Habs head coach Guy Carbonneau. "I know fights will happen, I don't have a problem with that, but it's never been in my game plan and I don't think it will ever be."
The Canadiens have adopted a wolf pack mentality in trying to make do without a traditional enforcer.
"Whether you have one or not, guys are going to stick up for each other," said Canadiens defenceman Mike Komisarek. "You want to make sure that the other team isn't taking liberties with your teammates. It's more of a mentality - that you're going to stick together.
"The other night we played against Philly, it was a very chippy game, there was always something after the whistle. You could see all our five guys were in there quickly. That was good to see."
Like Komisarek, there are many players fighting so far this season that aren't enforcers. Tampa Bay Lightning star centre Vincent Lecavalier created quite a stir by dropping the gloves in back-to-back games. Ottawa Senators defenceman Wade Redden, seemingly targeted by the Leafs, fought twice in one game against Toronto after going two years without one.
In fact, through Sunday, already 138 players had been credited with at least one fighting major this season - close to 20 per cent of the league's 700 or so players.
"Who knows why, but I'm grateful," Peters said with a smile. "I've been given a second wind to do what I do, have a career and keep doing what I love doing."
Among other Canadian teams, the Canucks through Sunday were tied for 11th in fighting majors with nine. Ottawa was tied for 13th with eight, Edmonton was tied for 16th with seven while Toronto was tied for 19th with five.
With files from Canadian Press sportswriter Shi Davidi in Toronto.