The Amtrak Series?
The Monosyllabic Series?
There may never have been a less interesting coaching matchup in the history of hockey, at least as far as news bites and insights go, than the New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals series that opens Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
When Rangers head coach John Tortorella is asked any question, his favourite answer is “no.” He holds the media in open contempt, his “press conferences” usually running to less than 60 seconds of refusal, avoidance and sarcasm. Washington head coach Dale Hunter, on the other hand, seems terrified of close-up attention, is not verbally gifted and prefers to get the torture over with and done.
Which means, as it should mean, that the players are going to have to carry the series on the sports pages and talk shows as well as on the ice.
The Rangers, who finished first overall in the Eastern Conference, and the Capitals, who disposed of the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the conference quarter-finals, are good teams but far from perfect. Their seven-game victories in the first round showed both their strengths and their weaknesses.
The two teams, however, already knew that, having met in the playoffs as recently as 2009, when the Rangers had a three-games-to-one lead and lost in seven, and again in 2011, when the highly touted Capitals whipped the Rangers in five games.
That was then and this is now, of course. The Rangers are now the top seed and the Capitals the underdogs who defeated Boston in the closest seven-game series in playoff history, each game decided by a single goal.
Having watched every minute of the New York-Ottawa series, it is hard to understand how the Rangers rose so high. They seem to be a team whose success is built almost entirely on a great goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, and obsessive shot-blocking. Their rush is almost hilariously unimaginative – the same play tried over and over – and their top regular-season scorer, Marian Gaborik, was as much of a threat in the opening round as the Rangers’ stick boy.
So unimpressed is Tortorella with Gaborik’s one goal and three assists in the seven-game series that it is believed he favours rookie Chris Kreider, the Boston College star who played his very first NHL game in Game 3 and scored the game-winner in Game 6, over the flashy Slovak.
What the Rangers do have is an excellent work ethic – Gaborik so far excluded – led by young captain Ryan Callahan and a young defence that makes up for experience by sheer determination. New York’s 2-1 victory Thursday was on goals by Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, both defencemen. There is not much of a power play, which means the mathematical equation for a Rangers victory is simple: They score once more often than Lundqvist gets scored on, they win.
There is no such simplicity when measuring the Capitals. This team should already have won a Stanley Cup, given the explosive talents of captain Alexander Ovechkin, playmaking centre Nicklas Backstrom, the sullen but gifted Alexander Semin, and attacking defenceman Mike Green.
In 2009, the Capitals’ seven-game series against Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins – with Crosby and Ovechkin matching hat tricks – was the best playoff series of this century, the winner (Pittsburgh) moving on to win the Stanley Cup.
Back then it was Washington’s goaltending that was sometimes suspect. This spring, with rookie Braden Holtby in net, that question seems answered. The 22-year-old native of Lloydminster, Sask., won when his team was trailing, and he won on the road.
Unfortunately, it is now the Washington superstars who are suspect.
Ovechkin is no longer the force he once was. Whether it is teams treating him like a one-trick pony – burst in fast on the off wing, rip a shot from the circle using the defence as a screen – or the player himself changing, no one really knows. But “Ovie” only got back to being close to “Ovie” in the latest stages of this past regular season. So far in the playoffs, the only thing that can be said in his favour is that he has outshone Gaborik. He has seen his ice time reduced by Hunter’s iron hand to a point where he is simply another forward, not an on-ice presence second only to the puck.
Both Backstrom and Green fought through injuries and neither appears what he once was, at least not yet. Green, whose defence has always been a problem, has never fared well in playoff hockey. Semin is unknowable, shift to shift.
This is not the Washington Capitals of 2009, even if many of the faces remain the same. They won then, but not enough, by pure attack. They win today through discipline, avoiding the easy penalties and checking so intensely that, against Boston’s impressive power play, they allowed but two goals in 23 short-handed situations.
It has all the ingredients for another fantastic series.
Minus, of course, the press conferences.