Derek Stepan, who plays center for the New York Rangers, seemed briefly baffled by circumstance. He just at that moment had converted a lovely straight-line feed from the corner by Rick Nash, beating Washington's Nicklas Backstrom to the goalpost and flipping the puck over Braden Holtby to give the Rangers the 4-3 lead Monday that they would hang on to desperately for the remaining six minutes and 25 seconds of the game. He seemed a bit unclear what you were supposed to do in this situation, so he just skated behind the net and threw himself into the glass.
"I kind of leave the zone for a second. I kind of get lost," Stepan said afterward. "I know he's got to make a kind of quick choice — either shoot it at the net or shoot it at me. It's a great play by Rick. I was excited. It was a big goal and a big relief."
You could almost hear the ice breaking around these two teams Monday night. Everything loosened up, except the officiating, which we will get to later on. But after playing two close — and marginally uninteresting — Eastern Conference quarterfinals games in Washington, it seems as though the Rangers and the Capitals internalized the raucous atmosphere that had descended on the general vicinity of Penn Station not long before the evening rush hour began. People hurrying for their commuter trains to New Jersey were assaulted by rock bands, faceless homunculi in form-fitting blue suits, and, as the game grew closer, two double-decker buses full of Rangers fans that you could hear coming down Seventh Avenue almost all the way from the park. (I believe there may have been some beer involved in the pre-flight rituals for these two buses, but opinions vary.) Washington tried hard to produce a playoff atmosphere in and around Verizon Center, but Madison Square Garden remains a place that echoes, a place of old men in lace-up GILBERT jerseys that look like they've been laundered under a riverboat for 40 years.
The change in tone seemed to light up the Rangers, who played lethargically in Game 1, and then played Game 2 so tight you'd have thought they were trying to smuggle something out of the building in their pockets. It was all different Monday night. With coach John Tortorella making line combinations like a guy trying to open a safe, the Rangers played with a kind of freewheeling abandon, and they managed to beat the Capitals at their own game — on oh-fense, as they say. Every time Washington seemed ready to take control of the game, the Rangers would scrap and claw — and, often, draw a bad penalty — and put the Capitals back on their heels again.
"I think the fact that we came back into our building helped a lot," said Derick Brassard, who rang up a goal and two assists Monday night. "I think we had some fun tonight. I think in Washington, we were grabbing our sticks a little too hard. Tonight, we had fun. We made plays. We put some pucks on net."
It's the second week in May, and it seems like the hockey season has finally begun.
The series began as a still life in two games. This came as something of a surprise, and as more of a disappointment, as these two teams have constructed a nicely raucous playoff rivalry. Going into this year's series, they played each other seven times since 1986, and three times in the past four seasons. The matchup has been razorish; the Caps have won four of the series and held a 22-19 lead in games going into this series.
The two franchises have managed to blend good, tough playoff hockey with some delightfully extravagant playoff lunacy. The Rangers beat the Caps in seven games last year. In 2011, Bruce Boudreau made the mistake of dissing the enthusiasm of Rangers fans — which, to anyone who has spent any time within an area code of Madison Square Garden, is tantamount to an antelope questioning the devotion of a lion to his lunch — and finding out the next night that an arena full of them can chant "Can you hear us?" very loudly. The Caps, remarkably, won the game anyway. But, two years earlier, the fractious Tortorella made his most indelible mark so far as a coach. He also arranged for the name Claudette Chandonia to enter hockey lore — though how hockey had lasted so long without somebody named Claudette Chandonia involved in its history in some way continues to baffle scholars.
In 2009, the Rangers trailed by four goals in the third period of Game 5 in Washington. Some Caps fans behind the Ranger bench began chewing on Tortorella, tormenting him beyond endurance — though, admittedly, in Tortorella's case, endurance is not exactly located on the North Pole. Fed up, Tortorella fired a water bottle over the glass, beaning the aforementioned Ms. Chandonia. Tortorella then grabbed and waved a stick. These are not two teams with a history of being polite to each other.
For all that, the beginning of this series was conspicuously muted. There was something strange and airless about this year's NHL playoffs as they began last week. The action was still compelling, but there seems to be something within the game that was wounded by what likely will go down in history as the most useless and stupid lockout since the previous NHL lockout, in 2005. Everybody — from the executives to the coaches to the players to the referees — seems to be playing on some kind of mental probation. Nobody wanted to give the sport what would be perceived to be another public relations disaster, so everybody did his job, not so much overcautiously, but more with a kind of anticipatory dread. The league can stand some fighting, but it doesn't need any more buccaneer idiocy like that perpetrated by the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday night against Ottawa. (Somebody please tell P.K. Subban that his act is well past its sell-by date.) It can stand the rough stuff, but not the escalation that too often comes after it. So the whistles have been a bit quicker, and you can see just a touch of hesitation from everyone on the ice.
And, if this series is any indication, the officiating, at least, is unlikely to loosen up anytime soon. The whistles were loud and frequent Monday night; Washington had to kill six penalties, which bogged them down entirely, and the second game Saturday was marked by an extended seminar in the delay-of-game rule as applied to a puck being shot into the stands. Mike Green's game winner was a power-play goal set up by a delay penalty called on New York's Ryan McDonagh, and it followed a foiled Rangers power play that had arisen when Steve Oleksy of the Capitals popped one into the seats at the end of regulation. And then Washington's Karl Alzner tipped a pass into the seats and, despite some serious operatics from the New York bench, was not assessed the penalty, because he had not deliberately sent the puck out of play. And, not for nothing, but almost nobody in the NHL likes this regulation anyway. As Washington coach Adam Oates pointed out, the rule, which exists only in the NHL, penalizes players for doing something they've been encouraged to do by coaches from the first day they laced them up.
(Which, doubly parenthetically, reminds me of the first time I ever saw an arena football game. As you may or may not know, you can play the rebounds off the net in the back of the end zone. I saw a quarterback get in trouble and then respond by doing what he'd done since his days in Pop Warner — chuck it out of trouble. It was pure football instinct, correctly applied. Except in this peculiar context. It came off the net and a defensive back took the carom back the length of the field to win the game. "Don't ask me," the losing coach told me. "Just don't fucking ask.")
There is a general agreement that the playoffs — which are always the best part of any NHL season, and the league's one undeniable selling point — are the last chance the NHL has to make everyone forget the elaborate public exercise in self-destructive misrule that delayed the beginning of the season. These playoffs can't merely be good. They have to be great. They can't merely be compelling. They have to be able to sell the league again to a general public that can be forgiven if it thinks that the entire sport of professional ice hockey is run by the damn Marx brothers.
So, in the first two games in this New York–Washington series, we saw tense, tightly officiated contests, a dynamic that redounded to the benefit of the Capitals, whose power play completely outclassed that of the Rangers. After a curiously apathetic Game 1 performance, New York did manage to recoup itself for the second game, in which Henrik Lundqvist and Holtby matched shutouts through 68 minutes until Green ripped a shot through Lundqvist in sudden death to give Washington the 1-0 win, and a 2-0 lead in the series coming back to New York.
Once Carl Hagelin bumped a wraparound behind Holtby at the end of the first period of Game 1, the New York attack disincorporated entirely for the rest of the time in Washington. The Rangers were held scoreless for the next 111 minutes and, ugliest of all, New York managed only five shots over the third period and the overtime in Game 2, and they were outshot 8-0 by Washington in the extra period. "We're just stagnant," Tortorella said after the second game. "We're almost paralyzed." Last summer, in an attempt to juice up their offense, the Rangers brought in Rick Nash. Two summers ago, in an attempt to juice up their offense, they signed Brad Richards. Over the first two playoff games this year, neither of those two had a single point.
Then we all came back to New York, where they have Zamboni races down the middle of 33rd Street on the day of the game, and where the roasting chestnuts bring the lasting aroma of the winter into the slanted sunshine of the early spring, and everything suddenly seemed very hockey again.
Alex Ovechkin remains the Great Inevitable. Sooner or later, he is going to make some kind of play that breaks up a game, or even one that breaks up the series. The play is out there to be made, somewhere in the space between the level of his talent and the level of everyone else's. He has only two points so far. Monday night, he took a silly penalty 1:03 into the game, and mustered only two shots on goal. He had only one golden moment. In the second period, he somehow saw a ridiculous open angle and found Mike Ribeiro standing alone to the right of the New York goal. The pass forced Lundqvist to make the save of his life. And, with the Capitals spending so much time Monday night killing penalties, it was not a game to show off what Ovechkin could do, even though, with 1:54 left, he took a gorgeous dive to draw a penalty, allowing Washington to pull its goalie and skate the rest of the game with a two-man advantage.
"We tried to play the shooting lanes then, and we didn't find them," he said. "If we have a chance to shoot, we have to shoot. We moved the puck too slow. They just stand there. You don't have lots of chances to play six-on-four, and it's a total different picture out there. It's not going to be a beautiful goal, like tic-tac-toe."
He is the only thing the series is missing thus far, now that it actually is a series. The games can be close. The games can be rough. But the sport needs a couple of superstar moments, now that it seems that, at long last, an actual hockey season might finally be breaking out.