Brooks Laich has said, “It’s nice to be able to frustrate teams.”
Asked if that’s what is transpiring after the Capitals took a 2-0 Stanley Cup quarterfinal series lead on the New York Rangers Friday night at a very loud Verizon Center, the veteran left winger said, “I don’t know if we’re there; you have to ask them.”
Actually, you don’t even have to ask John Tortorella, the Rangers’ coach. Look at him, hiding his anger and desperation beneath a half-smile, doing all he can to repel a more skillful and disciplined hockey team.
After Mike Green’s blast from the right wing in the second period ricocheted off a Rangers player, and Jason Arnott put away the deflection beautifully for his 31st playoff goal and a 2-0 lead in Game 2, the familiar postseason image of Tortorella folding his arms in more contempt than contemplation was up on the Jumbotron.
Even inserting a has-been troublemaker like Sean Avery into Game 2’s lineup hadn’t worked. The Rangers’ physical and verbal goading went for naught. A rookie defenseman was called for a soft penalty for knocking over Green, leading to that goal.
Now what, “Torts?”
Let’s give the man credit for a second. Offensively painful to watch, Tortorella knows the Rangers don’t do goals very well; New York scores worse than eligible BYU basketball players.
So the feisty, resourceful coach understandably wanted to mix it up.
Which could’ve worked if Green hadn’t surprised everyone with his sterling play in two games since his return from injury in February. Or if a serene Michal Neuvirth, surprisingly so for his 23 years of age, wasn’t outplaying a goalie of Henrik Lundqvist’s caliber in just Neuvy’s second playoff game.
But mostly, it’s the discipline of the Caps that stood out Friday night; the inability of Washington to take the dumb penalty early — to skate away instead of retaliate — played right out of Tortorella’s scheming ways.
You’ve seen him on his bench in Italian wool, plotting, percolating. If the comedian Dennis Miller had his mug and mop cropped at Supercuts, he would be Tortorella.
Like Miller, the Rangers coach also camouflages his venom with humor and, having not had a plethora of talent since he won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004, he is also easily five years past his heyday.
When Torts is behind in most playoff series and hopelessly outgunned offensively, he often resorts to hooligan tactics to muddy up the game.
Usually it’s an open-ice elbow, a knee jutting out as an opposing goal-scorer goes by and the old scoundrel standby – the goalie crosscheck while the referee isn’t looking.
The on-ice manifestation of Torts the Terrible is the irascible and ornery Avery. (Weird paradox: they don’t seem to like each other.)
Avery is barely 5 feet 11 and less than 200 pounds, but he is a bolt of intensity and annoyance. He comes from a long line of toy goons that have swapped punches and penalties for the Rangers, including Tie Domi (more infamously with the Maple Leafs) and current Caps General Manager George McPhee.
Because of his diverse interests — playing dress-up as in intern with Vogue magazine while simultaneously being a hellion — NewLine Cinema has actually commissioned a screenplay about Avery. The bad news is “The Devil Wears Prada” is sadly taken.
After Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin quickly got in the goal column in Game 1, Avery was activated for Game 2 – a desperation move of sorts, essentially meaning Torts had given up all hope of just Lundqvist stymieing the Capitals and keeping it close. He needed little, divisive punk to instigate.
And who better than Avery, who in a 2007 poll of 283 NHL players got 70 percent of his peers to vote him the most hated player. Don Cherry, who knows a thing or two about fashion and hockey, once said of Avery, “I’ve known this kid since he was about 16 years old; once a jerk, always a jerk.”
This isn’t a knock on every physical player who crawls beneath the skin of an opponent and messes with their psyche enough to make a difference — Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer elevated their nastiness to an art form in the NBA, and players like Domi and Claude Lemieux were uber-effective on the ice.
But Avery is another breed of insect, the kind of gnat who, if he were playing in your pick-up hoops game, would be the cretin feigning he was a teammate, waving his arms — “Here, pass it to me.” After turning the ball over to him under your own basket, he scores but is actually happier that he did so while fooling and humiliating. Yes, the Rangers’ left wing is that guy.
With 9 minutes 9 seconds left in the third period, Avery’s character showed when he toppled Semin after a play, knocking the overtime star of Game 1 to the ice with the force of his body and then trying to keep the young Russian down, if only symbolically.
The trouble is, Torts doesn’t have a lot of other naturally agitating players. (In hockey, they call this being “chippy,” because even sanctioned violence gets cuddly nicknames in this sport.)
And if the Rangers don’t solve Neuvirth in New York for Games 3 and 4, this could quickly spiral into the Capitals’ postseason dream in the first round: a quick, five-game series that featured a good rest before the second round.
Yes, it’s early. But they’re frustrating the Rangers, the team whose coach and main irritant lives to frustrate everyone else.
Now what, Torts?