MCCARTY, LEMIEUX FIGHT IN THREE SECONDS

Three seconds. You want to know the difference between the regular season and the playoffs in hockey? That’s it right there. Three seconds. That’s all it took for Darren McCarty and Claude Lemieux — the Popeye and Brutus of the NHL
— to resume their war.

Three seconds. And the sticks dropped and the fists flew and it was just like old times, if your old times were spent in “West Side Story.”

“Who threw the first punch?” McCarty was asked.

“Didn’t you see it?” he said.

“No, I was watching the face-off.”

McCarty laughed. “So was I.”

OK. So Claude threw the first punch. And then McCarty (which means “hero” in Detroitese) and Lemieux (which means “skunk”) gave the audience its money’s worth. Flying fists. Tossed helmets. Uppercuts. Jabs. The old sweater pull. The classic takedown. The only problem was that many of the people who came to see the bout were still in the halls buying beer. You can only imagine their horror.

“I’ll have two Millers, four Molsons, six Labats and–“

“FIGHT!”

“Never mind.”

Three seconds, and it was Rock ’em-Sock ’em robots all over again. Three seconds? Does anything happen in the first three seconds in sports? It takes three seconds for a kickoff to come out of the lights. It takes three seconds for Mike Tyson to decide which ear to go for.

“If we were going to do it,” Lemieux said, “we might as well do it right off the bat.”

Mission accomplished. Actually, before they even dropped the puck, McCarty and Lemieux were jawing at each other. I don’t think they were talking pork belly futures.

“It was between him and me,” McCarty said.

“Could you elaborate just a little?”

“OK. I said he was gutless and I had no respect for him as a human being.”

Hmm. That’ll do it.

Wham-bam-you-da-man — they fought. They swung, they pummeled, they pounded, they chopped. The crowd roared. Their teammates roared. It was just like a heavyweight fight, except you didn’t have to wait until 1 a.m.

And it wasn’t exactly their first rematch.

No playoff blood

The fact is, more than one Colorado-Detroit game has passed since March 26 — or as ESPN might call it “Judgment Night.” There were six games in between. Six chances for Lemieux to try to regain the tough man status he lost when he curled like a pillbug under McCarty’s blows. Six chances for McCarty to exact more revenge for the vicious cheap shot Lemieux gave to Darren’s buddy, Kris Draper.

But those six games passed, and not a punch was thrown. Why? Because those were the playoffs. You know. Playoffs? Where they actually keep score?

So Claude and Darren were on good behavior, even though their mutual disgust bubbled beneath the surface. And they managed to play good solid hockey, and we managed to have memorable series without calling in the paramedics.

But now we’re back to the regular season. Which means go to your corner and come out swinging.

“We’re proud of Claude,” said teammate Adam Deadmarsh. “It was something on his mind since last season, and he did what he had to do.”

“I respect him for doing that as a hockey player,” McCarty said. “But I still have no respect for him as a human being. He still hasn’t apologized to Drapes for what he did.”

A reporter asked whether this little blood feud might never end.

“Fine with me,” McCarty said.

Now, the last time McCarty and Lemieux went at it, I was critical of the eye-for-an-eye whole process in hockey. And I got an angry letter from Darren’s mom. And I like Darren’s mom. I like his dad and his whole family. They are great people. So I am not about to criticize the act of fighting today because:

1) That would be redundant.

2) It’s getting close to the Christmas card rush, and I don’t want to make Mrs. McCarty go to the post office.

Besides, lost in the scuffle between these two combatants was a sly move made by Colorado Coach Marc Crawford, who pulled his star goalie, Patrick Roy, and inserted Craig Billington, who had only started two games this year.

And guess what?

He got a shutout.

Forget the punches. That’s what hurts.

Crawford’s good move

“If I had started him against a last-place team, they would say he hasn’t proven anything,” Crawford said after the 2-0 victory. “This way, his teammates knew how important the game was, and they had to step up. And they did.”

I’m not sure if Crawford is this smart or just lucky. Last time we saw him, he was doing an imitation of Michael Douglas in “Falling Down.” I thought he was going to rip open his shirt and reveal a pack of dynamite tied to his torso. Maybe he didn’t want to start Roy because, in the last regular-season matchup, Roy got into the fisticuffs and wound up doing a Pillsbury Dough Boy match with Mike Vernon.

Who knows? The Avalanche won. And another Wings-Avs matchup is in the books, filled with interesting subplots, and the kind of fights that characterize this fascinating rivalry

— except when they play for something that matters.

“No question, in the playoffs, you don’t fight like that because you don’t want to do anything stupid,” McCarty said. “The object in the playoffs is to win.”

And here?

He scoffed. “Stuff that happens in a regular-season game in October doesn’t have any bearing when it counts.”

Somebody pointed out to McCarty that it is November, not October.

“It is?” he said.

Hmm. Maybe Claude hit him harder than we thought.

Mitch Albom will sign “Tuesdays With Morrie,” noon-2 p.m. today, Jewish Community Center, West Bloomfield, and 7-8 tonight, Borders, Farmington Hills. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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