The length of the suspension to Steve Downie was not unexpected.

The NHL has talked since last season about eliminating deliberate hits to the head, and sent tapes to the teams describing the criteria for action by the NHL.

Downie, the league ruled yesterday, covered just about all the new criteria that the NHL competition committee used in defining what would draw supplemental discipline from the league when he hit Ottawa center Dean McAmmond in the head with a flying check Tuesday night.

So 20 games was a number many people thought was possible. And that's what the league did yesterday afternoon following a hearing in Toronto, attended by Downie and Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren.

Downie also must forfeit the $63,101.60 he would have made on those days.

"Steve Downie was suspended for 20 games," Holmgren said yesterday. "My reaction is that it seems like a lot of games, but Colin Campbell is in a very difficult position, and we respect his position and his judgment in this case.

"We will live with it. I was with Steve during the hearing and was with him after the verdict. He is very upset and understandably so. He understands the ramifications, and he is prepared to live with this decision."

Last night Holmgren said that Downie's case is unique because he is a new player and on a two-way contract that allows him to play for the Phantoms, the Flyers' AHL affiliate. The suspension does not carry over into the AHL; all 20 games must come while Downie is on the Flyers' roster.

Downie most likely was slated to start with the Phantoms before the Flyers lost players to injuries this week. But according to Holmgren, the plan is to deal with the suspension in small chunks, while keeping Downie playing in the AHL.

"He can go the American League and play," Holmgren said. "Our plan is to make this suspension go away as quickly as possible. And because of our cap situation, we're probably going to have to get creative."

Holmgren said that Downie would play for the Phantoms and be recalled to the Flyers on days when the Phantoms are not playing. On those days, Downie's salary would be counted against the Flyers' cap.

"I've talked to the league about this," Holmgren said. "When we carry him on our roster, we're pushing the limit of the cap, so there is punishment to the Flyers, as well."

In making the decision, Campbell said that the league was not using Downie to set an example and that the example had been sent to the league's 30 teams before the season.

That tape detailed what would draw the ire of the league, and the keys were:

* Suspensions would follow when a player targets an opponent's head; when a player launches himself by leaving his feet to hit a player in the head area; when the hit to the head is delivered to an unsuspecting opponent; and the timing (lateness) of the hit;

* An additional factor in considering whether discipline is appropriate is whether the player is a repeat offender.

The only criterion Downie did not meet is the repeat offender.

"We sent out a tape," Campbell said. "We made a tape after all these meetings and every team in the league received this tape for their players. And we sent out a supplementary discipline reminder, which we do every year. We also included what was read on the press release regarding all the criteria involved.

"So the players are fully aware of what's not acceptable now. And that's what the competition committee is about. The players participated with the competition committee and that is what they didn't want to see in the game. They're the ones on the ice, they're the real key stakeholders. It's their careers that are out there.

"So we sent that tape out. That was the message. This isn't the message. That was the message. I didn't think it was going to happen this soon, and I didn't think it would be this clear-cut."

In last night's game:

The Washington Capitals scored five goals in the third period to send the visiting Flyers to their fourth loss in seven preseason games, 7-5, at the Verizon Center. Daniel Briere scored two goals, Simon Gagne, Denis Gauthier and Mike Richards one each. Antero Niittymaki made 34 saves in goal. The Flyers host the Rangers tonight at the Wachovia Center. *