Rich Hofmann: Flyers, Pens punch in for work as usual

"And I said to myself, 'This is the business we've chosen.' "

- Hyman Roth, on the murder of fellow mobster Moe Green, in "The Godfather: Part II"

THERE ARE people who condemn hockey fighting as mindless barbarism. They do not tend to be the same people who roar when they clang that faux ringside bell at the Wachovia Center as a brawl breaks out. There is pretty much nothing that either of them can do to change the mind of the other. There is no sense trying.

But the culture is fascinating, and no one can pretend that it isn't. And the way that this series between the Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins has degenerated into a seasonlong street war is just as undeniable.

Last night it was the Penguins' Georges Laraque receiving a major penalty and a game misconduct for crosschecking the Flyers' Steve Downie into the boards from behind. Next time it will be something else. The teams have played four games this season and been assessed a total of 339 penalty minutes. There has been a rapid descent into the maelstrom.

To which, Laraque and Downie essentially shrugged.

Laraque: "If I want to hit somebody from behind, he's not going to get up. It wasn't intended to hurt. I couldn't believe I got 5 minutes for that."

Downie: "Stuff like that happens. We were both going into the corner for the puck. It's something that happens."

Shrug.

After the game, the two coaches were performing their additional duties as attorneys providing multimedia opening arguments before Colin Campbell, the NHL's dean of discipline. It is all a part of the process.

The Flyers' John Stevens called the play "a vicious incident," adding, "[Laraque] knew what he was doing. He sent that kid headfirst into the boards there. That's an extremely dangerous play."

For the defense, Penguins coach Michel Therrien said, "First of all, Georges doesn't have the reputation of a dirty player, and it's a fine line between trying to finish your check and the guys on the offense turning around. It's a fine line. I'm not going to comment on it."

And so it went. That someone is going to get seriously hurt as this thing escalates seems pretty clear - and heaven help all of them if these two teams were to end up as opponents in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

They cannot stop themselves, it seems, as incident after incident just escalates this thing. The one-sided nature of the series just makes it worse. Last year, the Penguins beat the Flyers eight times in eight games. This year, with last night's 4-3 victory, the Flyers have now beaten the Penguins four times in four games.

So you get these great, emotion-fueled, frustration-fueled shows of force. Laraque buries Downie at the end of the second period and gets kicked out. Downie gets in a fight on his first shift of the third period and gets kicked out (for not having his jersey tied down, of all things). Riley Cote looks to fight everything that moves and receives a misconduct penalty for his trouble. And on it goes.

But, afterward, the two sides of the main incident were discussed without emotion by either Downie or Laraque. They disagreed on the details, but the demeanor was entirely businesslike. As Laraque said at one point, of an early-game fight with Cote, "The thing with Riley is just that we have a job to do."

Just a job.

Punching a clock.

Punching a face.

Anyway, on the subject of the Downie hit, Laraque really was insistent that there was no intent to injure, even if it really looked like the kind of check from behind that has landed too many Flyers in the NHL's sights lately.

"We were battling in the corner, the puck in the corner," Laraque said. "He saw me coming. He stopped skating. I just went into the corner, I just pushed him . . . It wasn't like I intended to hurt him. I pushed him and he looked like he dove, like he jumped on the boards to draw the penalty. And I got 5 minutes and I couldn't believe it.

"Like, I didn't hit him. It was a push. And it's not like he didn't see me coming. It was the second time on the same shift that we both went into the corner for the puck."

Asked if he was worried about a suspension, Laraque said he wasn't.

"He got up and fought in the third, so I'm not worried about it at all," Laraque said. "He was fine. He was laughing out there. He did that job perfect. He draws a 5-minute power play and that was his job and it worked."

After Laraque spoke in the Penguins' dressing room, Downie spoke next in the Flyers' room down the hall. He said he did see Laraque coming. He said, "I figured he would not run me into the wall if my back was turned."

Downie was wrong, clearly.

Any injury?

"A little bit of a stinger, but nothing serious," he said.

And a suspension?

"I'm not even going to comment on that," said a man who has spent a decent amount of his hockey career in the principal's office himself.

And the accusation that he took a dive for embellishment's purposes?

"I took a dive?" Downie asked. "No, I didn't take a dive. I got hit pretty hard. I wouldn't say I took a dive."

That was as close as he came to being emotional about the thing, and it wasn't close at all. The series between the Flyers and Penguins is growing nastier by the game, and nothing appears capable of stopping it, but there appears to be a calm beneath the madness. It is just business. *

Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/hofmann.