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Capitals take advantage of blasé Rangers, force do-or-die Game 7

Whatever John Tortorella said to his players before Game 6 Wednesday night, they totally ignored him. On a night when his New York Rangers could have eliminated the Washington Capitals and moved on the Eastern Conference finals, Tortorella's troops played a robotic, passion-free hockey game, with the thought bubble that seemed to say "It's OK, we can get 'em in Game 7 in our barn if we don't do it tonight."

And so the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Rangers and Caps moves on to Game 7 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. The Eastern Conference regular-season champion Blueshirts now sport a 7-6 playoff record, and let's be honest for a second: the Rangers are lucky to be playing this far.

Absent a Joel Ward errant high stick in the final 23 seconds of Game 5 at home, the Rangers would have entered Wednesday in an elimination game. Would that have prompted them to give a more desperate, winning effort? We can't know.

What we do know is the Rangers were terrible until the final minute of Game 6, when they got a lucky Brad Richards goal that, instead of going two feet wide left, went in off the backside of Capitals defender John Carlson.

But instead of spending all this space dumping on Tortorella's unimaginative game plan and overall hockey philosophy, let's step inside the pews and pay the proper homage to a few Caps:

• First up, Alexander Ovechkin. His great top-cookies slapper past Lundqvist at 1:28 of the first period -- 15 seconds after Anton Stralman was whistled for tripping -- set the rockin'-red positive vibe for the night. That's what high-paid players are supposed to do: lead early, set the example for the disciples and go from there.

• Nicklas Backstrom. He assisted on both Caps goals. But it was more than that. He was physical, knocking guys off the puck on the offensive zone. He was, as Ken Hitchcock likes to say, "heavy on the puck."

• Braden Holtby. The Caps rookie goalie -- who to my mind resembles Christian Laettner with a playoff beard -- made 30 saves. No, he didn't need to stand on his head technically; most of the Rangers' shots were perimeter softies. But he projected an unmistakable air of confidence that transferred to teammates.

• Matt Hendricks. The depth center of the Caps was officially a minus-1, which tells you all you need to know about the plus-minus statistic. He won 56-percent of his faceoffs, administered four hits and did all the right, little things you do to win playoff hockey games.

Dale Hunter deserves plaudits, too, for a masterful job of matching lines with Tortorella. The Rangers' top trio of Brad Richards, Carl Hagelin and Marian Gaborik was well-matched most of the night by the Caps' line of Matt Hendricks, Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward. Look for Tortorella to want his first line to skate more against the Caps' skill guys Saturday.

As we might have expected, Tortorella gave a petulant display to the media after the loss, cutting short his news conference after a handful of snippy answers to earnest questions. It's OK, by now we know this about the Rangers' coach: he's a front-runner after a win, only too happy to expound to the press after a win by his heroes.

After a loss, he takes his ball and goes home. But again, it's OK.

It's good theater.

After one reporter's effort to analyze a part of the Rangers' loss to Tortorella, he snapped: "Stop tryin' to coach."

But enough about the Rangers. This was the Caps' night. They not only played a smart game, led by Hunter's great line matching, they won in all the heart categories, like faceoffs (58-42 percent) and blocked shots (24-6). They did it all after what could have been a morale-killing Game 5 loss in which Ward's high-sticking penalty gave New York a gift chance to win -- which they claimed. How did they keep the spirits up?

"It was tough, but we thought about it in the room the next day, watched some film in the locker room and we thought 'we played a good game,'" Hendricks told NBC. "Great job by 'Holtsie', he stood on his head tonight, and now we look forward to Game 7."

The Capitals are now 6-0 after a loss in these playoffs. They will play their second straight Game 7 on the road, the first resulting in a win over the former Stanley Cup champs in Boston. "Guys will have to be conscious, and make the right (line) changes," Caps forward Troy Brouwer told NBC.

Indeed, it will be interesting to see how much ice time Hunter gives Ovechkin in particular. While there has been an undercurrent of discontent from the Russian star over his ice time in these playoffs, he probably is admitting deep down that Hunter's playoff methods have paid sharp dividends so far.

The Rangers have shown all year they can regroup and win the big ones at MSG. But they're looking a little wobbly on the tight rope.

Tortorella doesn't have to answer to the media about how things stand.

It's his players who have to answer the big question on Saturday night.

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