Win or lose, Ted Sator seems to be able to retain his sense of perspective and humor.
The coach of the New York Rangers received a card in the mail early this week from a friend. The front had a picture of Moses walking across the sea bed while the waters of the Red Sea are swirling near his head, threatening to engulf him.
In the Bible, Moses made it to the other side with his flock unharmed. The fate of the Rangers is yet to be determined, but they seemed to be looking over their shoulders after losing to the Washington Capitals, 6-3, in the third game of the NHL's Patrick Division final series. That put Washington ahead, two games to one, in the best-of-seven series that will resume Wednesday in New York.
"Is a picture worth a thousand words, or what?" Sator said jokingly about the team's injuries and general state after today's practice. Asked who sent the card, he said: "It's certainly not from heaven."
Heavenly is one way people had been describing the play of Sator's goaltender, John Vanbiesbrouck. The 22-year-old from Detroit had been the talk of two towns after the Rangers' defeat of the Philadelphia Flyers in the opening round. But since the Rangers won the opening game of the second-round series, 4-3, in overtime at Capital Centre, the Capitals have scored 14 goals.
The way Sator and a number of Rangers look at it, Vanbiesbrouck is the least of their worries. It may be a case of a goalie going from fantastic to just real good, and his teammates are not helping.
"I told John that it didn't make a difference whether Washington scored 60 goals in the game," Sator said. "He's been a rock for us all year. For a guy to once in a while play like a human doesn't disturb me, and I want to keep that in perspective."
Said defenseman James Patrick after the loss: "You can't expect a guy to stand on his head every night. And he didn't play bad. He's playing well enough for us to win the series. The mistakes have been up high."
"He's been left alone," said defenseman Tom Laidlaw. "They've been getting up on us and we've tried to go out and make an opportunity, taking some risks that we wouldn't normally take. That leaves him with three-on-ones. And no matter how many times somebody stands on his head, you can't expect him to make the big save in those situations every time.
"Against the Flyers, we got ahead or were even after a couple periods and then we went back to playing Ranger hockey, which is banging the puck off the boards, dumping it in and going after it. We don't have the guns that Washington has. Our game is playing the percentages, and if we have the lead, we can play them."
But when the Capitals get ahead, the Rangers tighten up a tad, and the vocal Madison Square Garden crowd is taken out of the game. Or, as Pierre Larouche, the valedictorian of the Yogi Berra School of Postgame Analysis, put it: "We got the fans worked up, and then they let the balloon out of the air."
Vanbiesbrouck thinks the notion that his play and the team's win over Philadelphia were miracles is "ridiculous," and that if everybody plays the game he is capable of, the Rangers will be okay.
"I just try to be consistent," Vanbiesbrouck said. "Try to make the saves, try to be involved as much as I can. When I can't come up with the saves our team needs, everyone feels the effects. They've been getting up on us early in the game. Whether it's my mistake or someone else's, it's a tough situation.
"But I feel confident now, and I felt confident before last night's game. It felt good in here the locker room today. It's all in the attitude. You can't lose the winning attitude. It's what keeps us going. It's what keeps me going."
The Rangers' problems were interconnected. By failing to finish off their numerous golden opportunities against Pete Peeters, they didn't get on the scoreboard early, which might have changed the complexion of the game, and they left themselves open for attack.
"We made good plays; we made some tremendous plays," Vanbiesbrouck said. "But it was a matter of them getting the breaks and putting the puck in the net. I couldn't find myself coming up with the saves we needed to bolster us. If I come up with a save on Bob Carpenter whose breakaway goal made it 1-0 at 3:06 of the first period in the beginning, a whole series of events could have been different.
"I don't like living on 'ifs,' though, because we haven't been. We've really worked hard. We'll be in there fighting hard, and we have nothing else to lose."