Judging from the manner in which Sunday’s 1-0 win against the Washington Capitals ended -- with an angry, heated scrum after the buzzer -- the New York Rangers are in store for a nasty battle when they travel to D.C. on Monday for a winner-takes-all Game 7.
The enmity between the Rangers and Capitals has grown and festered over the past five years, a span during which the two teams have met in the postseason four times, and it promises to escalate with emotions roiling right now.
After being blanked by the Rangers and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist, several Capitals players seemed incensed about a play late in the third period that resulted in a New York power play. Sunk by their lack of discipline in Game 6 (a problem the team has battled throughout the series), the Capitals took a whopping seven penalties but had no problem defending defenseman Mike Green for crosschecking Rangers forward Derek Dorsett in the mouth with 6:14 remaining.
Before the penalty, the two players tangled in a collision that ended up with Green furious at Dorsett. He retaliated with a hard, swift stick to the mouth. Dorsett was still bleeding after the game.
Unprompted, Washington goaltender Braden Holtby called out Dorsett on the play.
“It’s a dirty slewfoot, and we’re short-handed from it,” Holtby said after making 28 saves to hold the Capitals in the game.
Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner agreed with Holtby and indicated that was at least part of the reason for the fracas that ended the game. Both Troy Brouwer and John Carlson were slapped with roughing penalties. Green emerged from the bottom of a pile looking woozy after getting a skate to the head, albeit an inadvertent one from his teammate Mike Ribeiro.
“Very, very dangerous,” Alzner said.
Dorsett, who was not aware of such allegations after the game, said he was trying to play hard and give his team an edge on special teams.
“When I get moving my feet and playing hard, sometimes it can get under the skin of other guys,” said Dorsett, who threw a hard hit that caused Alzner’s delay-of-game penalty in the first and drew a roughing penalty from Eric Fehr later in the period. "Anytime I can do that, I want to try and help get the team on the power play.”
The power play was stagnant again, 0-for-5 on the day (now 2-for-26 in the series), but Dorsett’s line with Brian Boyle and Taylor Pyatt was among the team’s most effective in terms of setting a physical tone and establishing an aggressive forecheck.
That sort of purposeful, straightforward game was what gave the Rangers success in Games 3 and 4, and that was what was conspicuously absent after the first period in Game 5.
Even coach John Tortorella admitted he didn’t use enough of his bench in Game 5, making it difficult to sustain a hard forecheck.
“I think that hurt us a little bit in Washington,” he said. “We had more people contribute today.”
For a team that has been in a similar backs-against-the-wall situation before -- the Rangers trailed Ottawa 3-2 in the quarterfinals last spring before rattling off two straight wins to advance -- the urgency was evident.
New York took hold of a 1-0 lead at 9:39 of the second on Derick Brassard’s shot that deflected off Capitals defenseman Steve Oleksy’s glove and didn’t look back. It was Brassard’s second goal and seventh point of the series.
“I think it’s more determination,” Boyle said. “It’s not a desperate thing.”
New York also clamped down defensively, providing the type of support that Lundqvist hasn’t received each night. Lundqvist recorded his seventh career playoff shutout, which tied him with Dave Kerr for second on the Rangers’ all-time playoff shutouts list.
The Rangers have managed to hold Washington’s Alex Ovechkin off the score sheet in four consecutive games, the longest drought of his NHL playoff career. Lundqvist, who has turned away all 17 of his shots during that span, is the biggest reason why.
A left-pad save to deny Ovechkin in the second was a particularly stellar reminder.
“Especially late in the game, he made some great saves,” Tortorella said Sunday. “The ultimate goal for [Lundqvist], in his mind, is to win a Stanley Cup, and you need to go through these type of situations to get there, obviously. I thought he stood in there last year for us, and he certainly came up big tonight.”
Lundqvist will need to step up again Monday if the Rangers are to punch their tickets to the second round. The Verizon Center was a difficult venue for New York to start the series -- the Capitals took a 2-0 lead in Games 1 and 2 in D.C. -- and following an emotionally charged Game 6, it promises to be even more hostile.
“It’s been a long series. It’s been a close series,” Dorsett said. “You can expect it’s going to be a war, and we’ve just got to make sure we’re ready for it and prepared.”