By Sally Jenkins
Monday, April 27, 2009
The New York Rangers can't hope to consistently out-skate or outscore the Washington Capitals, so their strategy is to outfight and out-argue them. Throughout the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, they've counted on belligerence as a neutralizer, but it's an approach born of inferiority, and they don't seem to have a Plan B. You know they're desperate when they're reduced to whining about foul language.
A series that was once 3-1 is now deadlocked, and all the truculence belongs to the Caps. In three of the last four games the Caps have simply overwhelmed the Rangers, outscoring them by 13-3, and Game 6 at Madison Square Garden was decided in just the second period when Alex Ovechkin did his Elvis knee slide across the ice to celebrate a goal set up by Tom Poti for a 5-1 lead. But it may have been over before it ever started. In the pregame skate Donald Brashear bumped Colton Orr, an incident Coach Bruce Boudreau delicately termed a "brief encounter," but which set a tone. With their firebrand coach, John Tortorella, suspended and watching from a skybox, the Rangers lacked fight. Or maybe they had already expended it with a long letter complaining to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, demanding better security for Game 7. Mind you, this was before Game 6 had even begun. It read more like a concession speech.
Anything can still happen, of course. You'd be crazy to say this eventful series is over, or to rule out one more violent whipsaw of momentum. "I'm a little worried," Boudreau said. "Three games, when you think about it, it's a difficult task. We know nothing has been won yet at all." Still, there is the unmistakable sense that the Caps have punctured something -- maybe literally, because the Rangers are now crying that Brandon Dubinsky had to get a tetanus shot after Shaone Morrisonn bit him during one of their hectic waltzes around the ice.
The combativeness with which the Rangers started the series, and with which they shoved the Caps to the brink of elimination, has deteriorated into childish quarrelsomeness. "Daddy, he bit me." Tortorella's wet disputations with foam-flecked Caps fans as his team trailed 4-0 in Game 5 at Verizon Center wasn't a matter of competitive ire, but a frustrated tantrumy child flinging a bottle. And GM Glen Sather's letter to the commissioner frankly just sounded peevish. Tortorella's behavior was indefensible -- and so was that of Washington fans who screamed homosexual slurs. But, in no sport, under any circumstances, can a coach brandish a stick at fans and expect anything less than suspension. But the Rangers keep turning over their shoulders and finger-pointing, as if to say, "How come we're the only ones who got in trouble?" Sather's letter claims the episode was as much the fault of "Washington's gross negligence" and "egregious fan misconduct," and asked for league intervention to "ensure that there are adequate security measures in place to protect our personnel in the event there is a Game 7 in Washington."
The Rangers insist the trouble didn't start with their famously hotheaded coach, but rather with a vast conspiracy to build "unusually wide gaps" in the glass panels at Verizon Center, which allowed fans to get at their players and coaches and "assault them with some of the most obscene language imaginable."
Worse than Sean Avery's?
The letter charges that Washington fans yelled too loud, and that they made remarks about players being homosexuals -- remarks no doubt bruising to the tender ears of New York hockey players. "Because of the way the glass is installed, the patron sitting behind Coach Tortorella (the gray-haired, bearded man in the white T-shirt) could literally scream into the coach's ear. According to Rangers trainer Jim Ramsay, one patron was screaming at the team, in graphic language, about whether Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have a sexual relationship. This was within earshot of several children seated nearby. Several other fans also made repeated homophobic remarks. Moreover, Mr. Ramsay reported that he and other bench personnel were spit on by one or more 'fans' as they yelled through the gaps in the glass."
To review, the list of offenses the Rangers have suffered at the hands of the Caps includes biting, spitting and name-calling. Next, they will complain the Caps didn't share their postgame juice boxes.
But what's really going on in this series is that the Caps have taken the measure of the Rangers' toughness. They have bullied their way back to even, and now there is just one game left and it's in their home arena. They are again the favored team. The Caps seem to have figured something out: If they can withstand the first few minutes of physical play from the Rangers, the New Yorkers will fade a little. And when they do, the Caps can take over with superior hockey skills and impress their will on the ice. "We know they are going to play hard the first ten minutes, so we battled hard and scored the first goal," Ovechkin said.
Poti noticed the same thing. "We were able to withstand their push," he said, "and then we started our own push."