The New York Rangers will find out tonight if they have met their Waterbottle.
Their tightly wound coach, John Tortorella, is back behind the bench for Game 7 after a one-game suspension for tossing a water bottle into the stands at the Verizon Center in Washington as a riposte for the beer, spittle and epithets that flew in the opposite direction. (This is a reminder that as hip as the NHL might be with new media and that sort of thing, the games themselves are not interactive.)
The impossible-to-miss irony is Tortorella had scratched Sean Avery in Game 5 for his lack of discipline. Then the coach, egged on by the crowd, had his own lapse in self-control. Do as I say, not as ...
Rangers president Glen Sather took the unusual step of releasing the letter he wrote to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman explaining the circumstances of his coach's contretemps with the fans in Washington, where security behind the bench seemed to be lax. Among Sather's concerns was the vile language being hurled at his coach and players. Clearly, after signing Avery -- who used some famously indelicate language when he was with the Dallas Stars -- the Rangers organization now has refined its position on this business of sticks and stones.
Of more concern to Sather should have been the Night of the Living Dead performance of his Broadway Blueshirts in Game 6. With a chance to close out the explosive Capitals on home ice by rallying around their suspended coach, the Rangers barely broke a sweat in a 5-3 capitulation. From his skybox aerie, Tortorella could not have loved the vote of non-confidence from his players.
So now Tortorella, who runs one of the best benches in the NHL, will be tested to find a way to ratchet up the play of a team who won three of the first four in the series but dominated only in the opener. For one thing, the Rangers look like they are running on fumes. For another, the Rangers took a huge blow when a first-period cheap shot by the Capitals' Donald Brashear broke the orbital bone of New York's best penalty killer, Blair Betts.
Betts is one of those players most noticeable by his absence. Along with Fredrik Sjostrom, he has provided New York with some of its best penalty killing in decades. (During a chat in his office in January, Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien, unasked, launched a long, elegiac tribute about Betts' energy and work ethic. You never hear opposing coaches praise a fourth-liner on a conference rival.)
After Betts dumped a puck into the Capitals' zone and wheeled to skate toward the bench, Brashear nailed him from the blind side. At first viewing, it looked like an elbow. In the NHL announcement that Brashear had been suspended for six games -- one for bumping Colton Orr in the Game 6 warm-up, five for the blow to Betts -- it was called a shoulder. No matter. Maybe Tortorella, whose Tampa Bay Lightning won Game 7s in the 2004 conference and Stanley Cup finals, can use this as a rallying point to coax more out of Nikolai Zherdev, Markus Naslund and Scott Gomez. (Dollar for dollar, year after year, no team pays more for less production than New York.) The guess is that the coach would rather have had Betts on the ice against a dangerous Capitals power play than a cause célèbre.
While on the subject of motivation, Tortorella is going to let Henrik Lundqvist figure it out on his own. Brilliant early in the series, the King has abdicated -- pulled for the third period in Games 5 and 6, the first time in his career he has been yanked in consecutive games. Said cheeky Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, Lundqvist can't play "like a god" all the time. The Capitals have beaten him on nine of their last 34 shots. Because of Lundqvist's butterfly style -- he has the widest stance in the league -- he often is vulnerable to shots just under the crossbar. More troubling have been the short-side shots whizzing past him. Lundqvist has looked uncharacteristically passive.
Meanwhile, Washington coach Bruce Boudreau, who jumped off goalie José Théodore after a desultory performance in Game 1 and hopped on rookie Simeon Varlamov, might want to rein in his 21-year-old just a touch. Varlamov, who is so new at this he still is wearing his Hershey Bears mask, has been superb except for Chris Drury's rebound goal in Game 4. But if Varlamov does have a flaw, it is an aggressiveness that carries him past the top of the blue-painted crease when he challenges shooters. Theoretically, he is vulnerable to back-door plays, but the Rangers have looked incapable in the past two games of generating anything.
Washington fell behind 3-1 in its opening round series to the Flyers in 2008 and wound up losing Game 7 in overtime at home, but this is a more mature team. The Capitals still occasionally fumble around defensively, but they rarely panic. After an embarrassing Game 1, Norris Trophy finalist Mike Green has improved incrementally. (He plays with Shaone Morrisonn, whom the Rangers claim bit Brandon Dubinsky on the arm during a Game 6 scrum. Nothing like a charge of cannibalism to enliven the off day.) Green and Tom Poti (one goal, three assists in Game 6) provide the Capitals with offense from the back, easing some of the pressure on Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. The Alexes have combined for seven goals in the series, one more than New York has scored in the past five games.
Tortorella says all the pressure rests with Washington, but he is a clever enough fellow to know that he must make amends for his enforced one-game absence. Maybe his meltdown won't be remembered as long as Watergate, but Waterbottle-gate will long haunt a team that should have taken out the superior Capitals when it had a chance.