Series Goes to Game 7, but It's Over
And he smiled.
And the Rangers turned away.
And you knew right then the Rangers were done, that the decisive Game 7 Tuesday in Washington is just a formality, that New York's season will end softly, with nothing but a whimper.
It's stunning how dramatically the Rangers have raveled apart at their blue seams in the last few days, after taking a 3-1 lead in the first-round playoff series against the Capitals. Maybe the Rangers can send another note to the league, complaining everyone's picking on them; maybe coach John Tortorella has learned it's best to aim his water bottle at his tepid players and not potty-mouth fans. They'll have all summer to figure it out -- if Torts is even invited back as Ranger coach -- while Ovechkin and the Capitals see how far they can stretch now that they've found the right groove.
Jim Schoenfeld, subbing for the banished Tortorella Sunday, cut right to the bone after Washington skated over and through the Rangers for a 5-3 win in Game 6 at Madison Square Garden. "We had some guys who were locked in and ready to go and we had some other guys who wanted to test the water," said the assistant coach, offering a keen indictment on the Rangers' lack of heart and readiness for what could have been the clinching game, at home, in front of a packed crowd ready to celebrate.
This is not to ignore the obvious: the Capitals are the better team, faster, more skilled, tougher on the blue line, and if all that fails, they can still jump on the back of Ovechkin and watch him dominate. One game from elimination, the Capitals have since outscored the Rangers, 9-3, and twice caused goalie Henrik Lundqvist to get the early hook. There's no shame in losing to Washington, especially since their star weapon is half man-half cyborg.
No, the disgrace is in how quickly the Rangers fell apart, beginning when Tortorella, Mr. Law and Order, tossed a water bottle at unruly fans behind the visitor's bench in Washington Friday night, thus earning a one-game suspension. Banished to a Garden sky box Sunday, Tortorella witnessed calamities at every end: there were pucks sailing past Lundqvist's glove side, until finally he was pulled after 40 minutes, the Rangers down, 5-1; there were costly turnovers in the Rangers' defensive zone; there were forwards doing very little against Caps goalie Simeon Varlamov, the rookie who had 29 saves but was barely tested.
Mostly, there was the sight of Washington goon Donald Brashear poking the bear, and the bear responding by taking a nap.
In pregame warmups, Brashear and Colton Orr nearly came to blows, the Rangers later claiming Brashear should have been ejected from the game before the puck dropped. But then midway through the first period, with the game knotted at 1-1 and the Rangers in the middle of a line change, Brashear skated away from the puck and toward Blair Betts, one of the few Ranger playing with fire in his belly. Brashear viciously leveled Betts with an elbow to the head, causing Betts to crumple to the ice. Neither of the referees saw the play, instead handing out minor roughing penalties to Brashear and the Rangers' Paul Mara after Mara jumped to Betts' defense.
Wobbly and dazed, Betts had to be helped off the ice, and spent the rest of the game in the trainer's room being examined for concussion. The hit, brutal and illegal, changed the game's tone. The Garden crowd, frothing more than it has all season, waited for Sean Avery to channel his inner demons, for Chris Drury to act like a captain, for someone to wrestle back control.
Alas, Mark Messier is but a memory. Four minutes later, the Rangers again failed to clear the puck out of the zone, and Mike Green wristed a power-play goal for a 2-1 lead.
"He's hurting significantly," Schoenfeld said of Betts. Schoenfeld went on to say "it would have been nice" if Brashear had been punished for his pregame shenanigans and not been in the game "to eliminate one of our best players." Fine, but when they're done whining about the referees, can the Rangers admit they're at fault, for forgetting hockey isn't just ballet on skates?
Tortorella ought to be a bundle of joy after watching from on high as the Caps alternated between torturing and toying with New York. Washington took a 3-1 lead when Tom Poti, the former Ranger, burst out of the penalty box, snared a loose puck and began a three-on-one rush at Lundqvist. It ended with Poti lifting a puck into the back of the net, for another goal by a Washington defenseman.
"We were focused, we were ready, we just didn't have the effort, that's for sure," said the Rangers' Marc Staal, who was burned twice by his own mistakes.
"We had some guys who I could tell were physically gassed. I could just tell that they wanted to give, and they didn't have it to give," said Schoenfeld, who had no trouble summing up the mistakes, but offered little reason to think they'd be fixed by Tuesday.
The Rangers were far more adept at zinging subtle digs at the referees, who might have missed two key infractions but were nonetheless not responsible for the Blueshirts lying down like dogs in the midday sun. It was indeed madness that Dubinsky needed a tetanus shot after the Caps' Shaone Morrisonn allegedly bit him during a second period scrum -- the madness made doubly worse when Dubinsky was given an extra 10-minute misconduct atop a boarding penalty as he attempted to show officials the bite marks and blood on his hand.
While the Rangers fumed the Capitals pounced, Ovechkin tipping in Poti's drive for a power-play goal at 16:44 to put New York in a 5-1 hole and chase Lundqvist for the second straight game. Lundqvist, so brilliant in Game 4, hasn't had offensive support since the first game of the series, and though he rarely has three lousy performances in a row, the Rangers' problems go far beyond their goalie's heavy glove.
Of course, leave it to Ovechkin, speaking in a voice that echoes like the Terminator, to pound the hammer on the nail. "They play well, we play better," he said in the visitor's locker room. With looks that could turn the timid to stone, Ovechkin batted away questions about Brashear and bites, and sniffed at the notion that this season would mirror last year, when the Capitals trailed Philadelphia 3-1 in the first round, forced a Game 7 at home, and lost.
"Why would it be the same?" he asked. "Do you think this is anything like that? Then you don't know anything."
And so it is that the Rangers return to Washington to avenge bites and concussions and prove they haven't completely lost all guts. Tortorella will be behind the bench; the Rangers have asked the league to tighten up security around the visitor's area. The Rangers claim the coach was reacting to vile homophobic slurs from the crowd when he spiked a full water bottle over the glass Friday, then grabbed a player's stick and waved it as if he were about to attack.
Glen Sather, Rangers president, sent a letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman Saturday, the first paragraph reading:
In addition to your suspension of Coach Tortorella for his actions during last night's game, we respectfully request that you consider appropriate discipline in light of Washington's gross negligence in ensuring the safety of the personnel on the Rangers' bench, including Coach Tortorella, in the face of the Rangers' repeated requests for intervention against egregious fan misconduct during Game 5. As importantly, we would like the League's 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 are correct to demand their team be protected from misbehaving cretins, and any fans who spit through slats and scream offensive language at visiting players should be banished from the arena. Any coach who physically reacts to those cretins deserves his own banishment. That ought to be chapter one in the human being playbook.
We'll see if the Rangers have anything left in theirs.