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Updated: February 19th, 2012 8:50pm
Zulgad's Roundup: Wild tough guy talks about the art of the fight

Zulgad's Roundup: Wild tough guy talks about the art of the fight

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Matt Kassian didn't have a point for the Minnesota Wild in Sunday's 2-0 victory over the Boston Bruins but that didn't mean the big left winger failed to play an important role in the game.

Kassian, the Wild's resident tough guy, and Bruins left winger Shawn Thornton engaged in a third-period bout that linesmen Ryan Galloway and David Brisebois let go on for an extended time.

"I don't know if I've ever had one that long," said Kassian, an experienced pugilist who had 132 penalty minutes in 60 games with Houston of the AHL this season and 39 penalty minutes in 14 games with the Wild. "That was long. It just kept going and going. (Thornton is) a guy who is in extremely good shape. Not that I don't think I'm in good shape, but he wanted that thing to keep on going. Fine, whatever, that's what he does."

Fighting might not play the role that it once did in the NHL, but there remains a place for a player to drop the gloves in order to give his team a spark.

Kassian is 6-foot-4, 232 pounds so the average player isn't going to want to fight him. That means that if he's dressed, a player on the opposing team usually has its tough guy ready to go.

Last Tuesday, Kassian squared off against Anaheim Duckers enforcer George Parros, who is listed at 6-5, 228 pounds. The two got into it in the first period of the Ducks' 2-1 victory. According to voting on the website www.hockeyfights.com, 53.2 percent of the fans that voted on the bout thought it was a draw.

It took Kassian (11 combined fights in the minors and NHL this season) and the 6-2, 217-pound Thornton (16 fights this season) far longer to drop the gloves on Sunday.

It wasn't for a lack of effort on Kassian's part.

He said that he tried to get Thornton to go earlier in the game but the Bruins winger did not want to oblige. Kassian called his attempt to see if Thornton wanted to go "little minny conversations," adding, "It's not like we're sitting down to dinner conversations."

"I think for him the situation earlier he felt it wasn't right and probably his coach felt it wasn't right at the time," Kassian said. "The past couple of games we've been struggling quite obviously. He maybe just didn't want to allow any home-building momentum or the crowd to really get into it when it's a 0-0 hockey game.

"But I think later on, when we're up a couple goals, he wanted to try to generate something and generate some excitement for his club. That's what he was trying to do."

The Bruins trailed by two when the fight occurred near center ice. Boston appeared to have little life at that point playing against a Wild club that hadn't won in seven games before Sunday.

Wild coach Mike Yeo didn't mind seeing Kassian drop the gloves, even if it had the potential to spark the Bruins.

"No, let's go," Yeo said, "that's OK. That's his job and he's been playing a great game. We're a team that plays better when we have emotion and when we're in the game. So I thought that ... I was OK with it."

When asked if he would ever try to force a guy into a fight instead of waiting for him to agree to go, Kassian said there are situations that warrant that type of action.

"Where you go to a guy just to force him to do it," he said. "With (Thornton) I respect him enough. He knows his job and he does his job well enough that he's not a guy who ... at least at that point in the game, where it's really necessary to do that.

"You issue a challenge and maybe try to get at him a little bit and chirp him a little bit and try to push him into it. You just kind of go with the game in situations like that at times."

Part of the issue with the length of the fight was that it came in the third period when the players already were a bit worn down.

"It's different when you're in the first and you're able to kind of recover and get a little bit of a break," Kassian said. "But it wears on you a little bit. It's something you've got to play through and you've just got to take your five-minutes in the box and breathe deep and get ready to go out there again."

About halfway through the fight, Kassian did ask Thornton if he was done but, "it kept going for another 40 seconds."

Clearly these fights between enforcers have unwritten guidelines to them and are not just two guys wildly swinging away at each other.

Asked about inquiring whether your opponent is done fighting, Kassian said:

"You might be like, 'Man, I'm done, are you done?' And if one guy is like, 'Nope,' then you're like, 'OK, I guess we're still going.' If one guy says, 'I'm done,' and the other guy is like, 'No, we're not,' you're not going to just stop. It's not like I'm just going to let him go and let him punch me in the face and be like, 'I thought we were done.' You might say that, but it's a fight. You don't stop to worry about that."

Kassian did come out on top in his fight with Thornton. According to those who weighed in on the hockey fights website, he got 49.3 percent of the votes.

The fighting strategy

Kassian's fight against Parros was quicker than Sunday's bout but Kassian said he didn't think that one went all that fast either.

"It is what it is," he said. "As the fight goes on, you've kind of got to pick your spots a little bit smarter and you can't just start throwing wildly. You've got to kind of use a little bit of leverage, get a good grip on the guy and try to be smart about it."

Parros and Thornton are different in their approach because Parros is a bigger guy and Thornton is more of a scrapper.

"Parros is a guy who is going to try to stand back and throw a little bit more," Kassian said. "He's big and he's got a longer reach, where Thornton is a little bit smaller. He's really strong. But he's smaller, he throws well with both hands. So he might try to close the distance a little bit and not allow you to keep him outside and switch hands and hit you with punches coming in both directions."

Kassian did say that he studies his potential opponents before games but doesn't over-analyze it.

"I might just kind of watch a few of their recent (fights) and see how he's been doing, or what he's been doing, and kind of go, 'OK, this is kind of my game plan against this guy,'" Kassian explained. "What I'd like to kind of go into it doing or like to approach it.

"It would just be like if you're going into a boxing (match). You're going to watch a guy's fights. Obviously they are going to do a lot more studying and habits and technique and whatnot.

"This is just kind of more a light thing, just so you know what to expect so you don't get completely caught off guard. You don't want to go into a fight not knowing if the guy throws left handed or anything like that."

A smart move

The Twins will make a change to how they present injury information to the media this season, taking it out of the hands of manager Ron Gardenhire and instead having general manager Terry Ryan or assistant GM Rob Antony give updates.

The decision to alter the process sounds as if it was Ryan's idea and it's a good one. At least from an organizational perspective.

Having Gardenhire as the guy who had to give daily injury updates last season - a year when they were a near constant - was unfair to the manager and a bad idea.

As Phil Mackey writes for 1500ESPN.com in his story on the change, Gardenhire angered some players when he gave information that might not have been 100 percent accurate. Putting it on the shoulders of athletic trainer Rick McWane later in the season also put McWane in a curious position at times.

Gardenhire shouldn't have had to worry about being the go-to-guy for injury news and putting him in a position to anger players in this manner was bad for business. (There will be a time this season when a player gets hurt in a game and the media will ask Gardenhire about it, but that's different than being responsible for an ongoing injury report.)

Gardenhire wants the players to believe he's on their side, even if it's not true all the time. The general manager is supposed to play the role of heavy and now when it comes to injuries Ryan or Anthony can do so when they feel it's necessary.

Little leverage

Marek Zidlicky returned to the Wild's lineup Sunday after being scratched from the previous two games and six of the past 11.

The disgruntled defenseman waived his no-trade clause in order to enable the Wild to deal him to the New Jersey Devils, but no agreement has been worked out and the Wild could hold onto him into the summer months when his full no-trade clause becomes a bit less restrictive.

Zidlicky looked extremely rusty in the first period Sunday, but coach Mike Yeo said he did see improvement as the game progressed.

"He hasn't played in a couple of games and that's a pretty good team," Yeo said of the Bruins. "I was very impressed. There's been a lot of talk, there's been a lot of things written, but the ultimate measure of if a guy is here and wants to be part of it is how he goes out and plays. I thought he made a pretty bold statement tonight."

The issue facing general manager Chuck Fletcher is that Zidlicky clearly has no interest in playing for Yeo and wants out of Minnesota.

Whether Fletcher tries to swing a deal before the Feb. 27 trade deadline or waits until the offseason to attempt to market Zidlicky to more clubs, those teams are going to know the Wild lacks any real leverage.

Fletcher isn't dealing from a position of strength. There can be no argument made that the Wild sees Zidlicky as any type of asset at this point. It was no accident Yeo attempted to compliment Zidlicky for his play Sunday.

The 35-year-old has one season left on his contract and will be in line to make $4 million in 2012-13. The reality is the Wild and Zidlicky need a divorce and with things already getting ugly in Minnesota it might be in Fletcher's best interest to make sure it happens before the trade deadline.

He'll take the rest

With Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin being a late addition to the Rising Stars Challenge at the NBA All-Star weekend this coming Saturday, Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman has suggested that center Nikola Pekovic also deserves to be included.

Pekovic has made a huge difference (both figuratively and literally) since taking over as the Wolves regular center and had 30 points and 12 rebounds in a 111-98 victory on Friday at Houston.

However, Pekovic seems to have little interest in being given such an "honor" and who can blame him? With the NBA's lockout shortened season being a 66-game sprint that requires teams to play back-to-back-back at times, Pekovic is probably very thankful to get a break.

Heck, any NBA player should be happy not to be included in the All-Star activities for at least this season.

Pekovic had 17 points and nine rebounds Sunday as the Wolves beat Philadelphia, 92-91, at Target Center for their third victory in a row.

End game

• Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder will join workouts on the UCLA campus that are being run by new Bruins offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, according to ESPN. Mazzone, a Gophers assistant under Jim Wacker, already has been working with Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.

• Left winger Benoit Pouliot, the fourth-overall pick in the 2005 NHL draft by the Wild, has nine goals and nine assists this season with the Bruins. The Wild traded Pouliot to Montreal in November 2009 for winger Guillaume Latendresse. Pouliot had 13 goals and 17 assists in 79 games with Montreal last season and then signed a one-year, $1.1 million free-agent deal with Boston in July of last year.

• The Wild's victory over the Bruins on Sunday gives them a 10-1-1 record in 12 games against the Bruins. That's much different than the Wild's NHL predecessors in Minnesota, the North Stars. That franchise went 0-28-7 at Boston Garden against the Bruins from 1967 to 1981 before finally winning in the building in the first round of the playoffs in the spring of 1981.

• In an attempt to market to some of the fans who are walking into the Xcel Energy Center for Wild games and other events, the Timberwolves have placed ads in several of the small boards located around the parking ramp that connects to the arena. The ads feature coach Rick Adelman and players Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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