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The Globe and Mail

Habs get serious about on-ice retribution

Montreal Canadiens' Brad Staubitz (25) and Tampa Bay Lightning's Pierre-Cedric Labrie (76) fight during the third period of an NHL hockey game on Tuesday Feb. 28, 2012, in Tampa, Fla. The Lightning won the game 2-1.

Chris O'Meara/AP

Having tried what passes for a pacifist approach, the Montreal Canadiens now seem to be hewing to a distinctly Old Testament view toward on-ice retribution.

And they're not making any apologies.

"That's a big part of my game, I'm going to stick up for my teammates," said newly acquired winger Brad Staubitz, who now has twice as many fighting majors and misconduct penalties as a Hab (two) as he has games in the uniform (one).

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In his Canadiens debut on Tuesday in Tampa, Staubitz managed to pick up a two-minute penalty and a misconduct when he grabbed Lightning forward Ryan Malone as the latter pounded on defenceman Alexei Emelin, who doesn't fight because of a metal plate that holds his left cheek and eye socket in place, itself the result of a scrap in Russia.

Minor problem: Staubitz was sitting on the bench at the time.

Later in the game, Staubitz sought out Lightning tough guy Pierre-Cedric Labrie for a fight, Labrie obliged.

"I love it, I think he's a great acquisition," said Ryan White, who has been known to shed his gloves on occasion. "He does his job well."

Malone would disagree – he was frothy with rage at Emelin's refusal to fight and seemed to call out the entire Habs bench after Staubitz's attempt to intervene.

Though the Canadiens swiftly did away with their last specialist fighter – Georges Laraque, who was sent home by the team halfway through his three-year, $4.5-million contract – it appears they're reconsidering that approach.

General manager Pierre Gauthier called it "an adjustment" rather than a change in philosophy, but coach Randy Cunneyworth evidently approves of Staubitz's brand of hockey.

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"Nobody will admit it openly, but I think I can admit it makes a team more cohesive when you've got that element. Players can back up certain actions on the ice. The other team knows, players of that nature can even out things or just not allow things of that nature to go on," he said on Wednesday. "It makes everybody a little bit more physical, a little bit braver to some extent. Nobody's going to admit that personally, but I think I'm allowed to, and that's the element we're trying to create, but it's more about a team toughness."

The "certain actions" Cunneyworth was referring to presumably include incidents like that involving Malone and Emelin.

It was touched off when the Lightning forward pasted Emelin into the end boards ("From behind," Cunneyworth stressed), the Russian reacted moments later by smoking the big winger with an open-ice hit at the blueline – earning an interference penalty for his trouble.

When Malone left the penalty box, he skated straight for Emelin, then proceeded to go bananas as the latter tried to protect himself.

Emelin, who appears to take great joy in dispensing crushing hits, is fast becoming as hated a figure as fellow defenceman P.K. Subban, albeit for different reasons.

"It's almost an upper hand. If guys know [Emelin]s not going to fight, but he's going to hit every night, as he has many nights, it's kind of an agitator role to some extent. I don't think he intends it to be that way, I think he just plays the game in a physical manner," said Cunneyworth. "He's not here to fight, we've got other guys that'll take care of that."

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There's an element of the fan base that will doubtless see the presence of players like Staubitz as a long-overdue balm for a team that, rightly or wrongly, has a reputation for having sand kicked in its face by meaner, bigger-bodied opponents.

That the Habs didn't actually win Tuesday's game – and couldn't cash on the five-minute penalty doled out to Malone for his assault on Emelin – will doubtless be passed off as a minor irrelevance by those people.

As might the idea that the Habs' most pressing problem is a lack of top-end skill, which elite teams have throughout the lineup.

In any event, Staubitz, who was picked up on waivers from Minnesota at the trade deadline, has 18 games to audition for a contract in Montreal next year.

His next game is Thursday against his former team, and when asked about whether he'll be looking to drop the gloves, he said he got along famously with all the Wild players.

"But we'll see how the game plays out," he smiled.

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