Cook: Asham has plenty of fight left

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Penguins winger Arron Asham didn't mention names, but he has a message for Brandon Prust, Stu Bickel and any of the other New York Rangers who might be thinking of taking liberties with Sidney Crosby Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

Don't.

"You have to protect your star players," Asham said. "That's the way the game is. That's the way it's always been played. We don't ever want anyone taking runs at our guys."

It's nice to think it won't come to that in New York. It's nice to think none of the Rangers will look to deliver a cheap shot on Crosby, who is expected to play for the first time since Dec. 5 after missing 40 games with concussion-like symptoms. There's not the same gratuitous violence in the NHL that there once was. Fights per game are down for the fourth consecutive season, from .60 in 2008-09 to .45 this season, according to hockeyfights.com. The Penguins no longer feel the need to have a Steve MacIntyre or an Eric Godard on their bench. NHL jobs are disappearing for the enforcers who are good at fisticuffs but bad at hockey.

Asham will be ready, though, just in case. So will defenseman Deryk Engelland, perhaps the Penguins' toughest character. If any team will use the rough stuff, it's the Rangers. They led the NHL with 58 fights going into the games Tuesday night. Prust was tied for the league lead with 18 fighting majors. The Penguins have been in just 28 fights, led by Asham with eight and Engelland with seven.

"I hope they never eliminate fighting," Asham said. "It keeps the game cleaner." In his mind, an NHL without fighting would be one in which cheap-shot artists run wild without fear of repercussion. "Those are the guys who need to be put in line," Asham said. "The game should be policed properly."

Most NHL players agree with Asham. The league's player association surveyed 318 members last month and reported 98 percent were against the elimination of fighting even though concussions and degenerative brain disease are hot-button topics in their sport.

Asham has another selfish reason for keeping fighting. "If they eliminate it, I'm out of a job."

The man fascinates me.

Asham said he's "scared and nervous" going into every fight. "I'm not the biggest guy. I'm 5-10 1/2, 195 pounds and I fight guys who are 6-4, 230. I have to rely on my defense and counterpunching."

Yet, Asham always is willing to drop his gloves. He holds his own, too. He's 7-1 in his fights this season, according to hockeyfights.com, with the only loss coming against the Washington Capitals' John Erskine Dec. 1.

Asham even was willing to fight after missing 13 games earlier this year because of a concussion that he said came from an elbow. In his third game back, against the Rangers Feb. 21, he tried to go after Bickel, who is 6-4, 215 pounds. The linesmen prevented the fight, but Asham did go March 3 with Colorado's Cody McLeod, who is 6-2, 206 pounds.

"I play the game as if I've never had a concussion," Asham said. "Once I start thinking about it, that's when my game is going to hurt. I'm just going to play my style. I'm not going to change my game."

It should be pointed out that Asham, who will be 34 next month, is a little more than just a tough guy even if he's averaging about nine minutes of ice time per game on the Penguins' fourth line. He was underestimating his skills when he said he would be out of a job without fighting. He looked pretty good Sunday when he jumped on a loose puck and swept it past Boston goaltender Tim Thomas for the Penguins' first goal in a 5-2 win. He looked pretty good in the playoffs last season when he was the Penguins' top scorer with three goals and an assist in their seven-game loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. He looked pretty good in the 2010 playoffs when he helped the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup final with four goals and seven points in 23 games.

"I still haven't won the Cup," Asham said. "I know I'm running out of years. I hope to have maybe three or four left. This team has a great chance to win. We're starting to get on a roll. I really want that Cup."

When Asham said he would do anything to win it, he meant anything.

Scratch. Claw. And, yes, fight.

Anyone.

Anytime.

Prust and Bickel should consider themselves warned.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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