Intimidation Plays Big Role

Tortorella Loses Control

Suspensions and intimidation have become a big factor in the Rangers-Capitals series. And just like the series itself, all indicators point to the momentum being on the side of the surging Caps.

John Tortorella sat out game 6 after throwing a water bottle at a fan at the Verizon Center in Washington during game 5. The incident took place in the third period. On the bench, Tortorella ended up cleaning some liquid off his jacket and the game continued on without incident. At the time, it seemed like a minor distraction to what had already been a humiliating defeat for the Rangers.

The league conducted what it called a “thorough investigation” into the incident and announced its decision late on Saturday evening. NHL Discipline Czar Colin Campbell ruled that “Mr. Tortorella squirted a fan with water before Mr. Tortorella was doused with a beverage. While, in these circumstances, it always is easy to allege mitigating circumstances, the fact is we do not tolerate contact with our fans in this manner.”

The league was right to suspend the Rangers’ coach. The fans are paying hundreds of dollars each game for a ticket behind the bench and even a few dollars more than usual in the playoffs. The league is dependent on game attendance to keep itself solvent. Without the fans, there is no NHL. The league cannot allow paying customers to be assaulted or threatened by players, coaches or team employees. It is simply bad business. The customer is always right.

Was Tortorella’s reaction understandable? Absolutely. Was it acceptable? No. Ironically, Torts failed to do exactly what he had asked of Rangers’ super pest Sean Avery: turn the other cheek and be smart. Pick your shots and don’t do anything that would hurt the team. It appears the Rangers have taken on the volatile nature of their new coach.

The Rangers’ reaction to the suspension only made things worse for the club. In an open letter to Commissioner Gary Bettman released just before game 6, GM Glen Sather asked that the league investigate the “gross negligence” of the security personnel at the Verizon Center for failing to protect Tortorella and the Rangers players.

The letter went on to complain about fans behind the bench assaulting the Rangers personnel with “some of the most obscene language imaginable” which included homophobic slurs and spitting at Rangers’ trainer Jim Ramsey. The Rangers complained, the open letter continued, but no fans were disciplined or removed from the game.

All of these complaints may indeed be legitimate, but they still do not justify Tortorella throwing a water bottle at a fan. His team was losing the game and he lost his cool. He then had to pay the price. That being said, if the fan who doused the Rangers’ coach can be identified, he or she should be banned from the Verizon Center for game 7 and perhaps beyond that.

The tone of the letter to the league was horrible. The Rangers organization sounded like the little kid on the playground, complaining to the teacher that another kid was picking on them. You could almost hear the Rangers saying to the teacher, “But he called me a name and he spit on me.”

Folks, this is the National Hockey League, not the first grade. Hall of Famer Conn Smythe famously said, “You can’t beat them on the ice if you can’t beat them in the alley.” While that quote may be a little extreme, the idea that toughness is needed to succeed in hockey hasn’t changed since Smythe uttered those famous words back in the day of the Original Six.

I’m sure the Rangers have heard and used language at least as foul as what the fans used against them. It’s nothing new. The Rangers have to ignore it. In the long run, it will just encourage the fans to do more in game 7. Instead, the Rangers allowed the fans to get under their skin. They were intimidated, distracted and taken off their game. Championship teams overcome obstacles like spitting and name calling. They rise about these minor distractions. The Rangers did not.

The league later announced there would be increased security at game 7 in Washington but no disciplinary actions would be taken against the Capitals. The Rangers had to play game 6 without their coach who was reduced to watching the game from a luxury box high above the ice. They lost 5-3 in a game that was not as close as the final score. The entire Tortorella incident served as a distraction that hurt the Rangers in many ways. A once promising 3-1 series lead is now gone.

Brashear Goes Over the Line

Meanwhile, in game 6, Washington enforcer Donald Brashear did his job a little too well. First, he bumped Rangers enforcer Colton Orr during pre-game warm-ups (Orr didn’t even dress for the game). That set the tone for his team and it would have been overlooked if not for happened later in the game.

Midway through the first period with the score tied 1-1, Brashear skated up behind New York’s Blair Betts and delivered either a shoulder or an elbow to Betts’ head. Either way, it was a cheap shot and Betts was knocked woozy and did not return to the game. He is doubtful for game 7 and according to published reports, may have suffered a broken orbital bone. If so, Betts is gone for the rest of the playoffs no matter how much further the Rangers advance.

Brashear’s action was a cheap shot whether it was an elbow or a shoulder. The puck was long gone so the hit was late and Betts did nothing to Brashear to instigate the hit. There was no prior contact between the players. Betts was defenseless and his back was turned. Remarkably, no penalty was called on the hit and Brashear and New York’s Paul Mara, who rushed in to defend Betts on the play, were each given two minutes for roughing for the small scrum that followed.

If replays prove the hit to be an elbow, Brashear should sit for a minimum of two games. The league has announced a policy of trying to prevent blows to the head. Brashear has already been suspended three times since the lockout so it’s not like this is the first time he’s stepped outside the rules. The injury to Betts is apparently severe and it is almost certain the Rangers’ best penalty killer will not be available for the club in game 7. If they find it was all shoulder, the suspension should be for a minimum of one game.

Colin Campbell was scheduled to meet with Brashear today (Monday) at 1:00 PM EDT. An announcement should be expected before Tuesday night’s deciding game.

A Biting Problem

The Rangers also made another claim after Sunday afternoon’s game. During his post-game press conference, Assistant Coach Jim Schoenfeld said that during a scrum that followed a bad hit from behind by Brandon Dubinsky, Washington’s Shaone Morrison bit Dubinsky on the hand. Schoenfeld even said the Rangers’ forward needed to get a tetanus shot after the game and added that when Dubinsky tried to show the referee the bite mark, he was given a 10 minute misconduct (perhaps he was bitten on his middle finger?). The Rangers almost certainly reported Morrison’s alleged bite to the league, although it is highly doubtful it will lead to any suspensions.

The bottom line right now is this: the Capitals are out playing the Rangers in all facets of the game. They are out shooting, out skating, out hitting and even intimidating the Rangers. Heck, the Washington fans are even intimidating the Rangers right now. New York needs to stop thinking about all of these distractions and just play better hockey than the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night. If they don’t, all the complaining in the world won’t prevent them from playing golf this weekend while Washington moves on to play in the next round.

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