One of the first things you learn in this business, after the importance of always getting receipts, is that there’s no cheering in the press box. You are to never, ever cheer for an individual player or team. Of course, cheering for the best story is entirely acceptable.
With that in mind, I can’t help but want to see the New York Rangers go down in flames in the Eastern Conference final. Nothing personal. It’s just that I think the New York Rangers are bad for hockey. And if we’ve learned anything about the NHL over the past century, it’s that once one style of play garners some success, teams will be lined up to steal the blueprint.
First of all, let me state for the record this has absolutely nothing to do with Rangers coach John Tortorella. I do, however, marvel at his transformation on a couple of fronts. When he won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 at the height of the Dead Puck Era, his and his team’s mantra was “Safe is Death.” Now, in what is supposed to resemble a new era with an emphasis on offense and creativity, his mantra seems to be, “If you do not chip the puck off the boards and block 12 shots a game, your rear end will be nailed to the bench. Just ask Derek Stepan.”
And back in his early days with the Lightning, when they were the dregs of the league, I remember travelling to Tampa Bay as a Toronto Maple Leafs beat writer with the Toronto Star and watching Tortorella kibitz with the local media corps for an hour after practice. They would run out of questions before he would run out of answers. Then, the better the Lightning got, the surlier he became. Now he approaches media sessions with all the enthusiasm of a death row prisoner on his way to the execution room...in Texas.
But as I said, I couldn’t care less that Tortorella gives a lousy press conference. Plus, I believe it’s all part of his grand plan. If those who chronicle the game are unduly focusing on Tortorella’s prickly manner, they’re not asking nagging questions such as, “why did the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference need seven games each to dispatch the seventh and eighth seeds?” And hey, this is the NHL. Most of us gave up a long time ago on any of these guys taking any responsibility for actually trying to promote the game. In the NHL, any advantage an individual team can gain regardless of the collective good of the game is pursued because the league sits back and allows its teams to do it.
But that’s not why I’m hoping the Rangers playoff run ends against the New Jersey Devils in the third round. The Rangers are bad for the NHL, that’s why. If you found the Rangers seven-game second round series against the Washington Capitals to be compelling hockey, then good on you. A lot of people, present company included, found it frustrating to watch and devoid of excitement beyond the fact there was so much at stake.
Part of the reason for this is I’ve grown to hate blocked shots. It didn’t used to be that way. There was a time when the blocked shot was an art, almost a thing of beauty, executed only by those players who could summon the courage to sacrifice their bodies to keep a puck from getting to the net. These days, though, there is no gallantry involved in blocking shots, otherwise everyone wouldn’t be able to do it. Protected by the best equipment the game has ever seen, players are no longer the least bit hesitant to put themselves between a slapshot and the net because they know there’s almost no chance they’ll get hurt. That’s why now when a guy winds up from the point, the defending team collapses in front of the net like a building being imploded. You call that exciting? I call it bloody maddening. But that’s the kind of play that has been earning rave reviews throughout the playoffs.
And nobody does it with the frequency the Rangers do, which doesn’t seem to make sense since conventional wisdom suggests they have the best goaltender in the league and if Hart Trophy voting is any indication, one of the top three players in the world. What’s more, they pay him 6.9 million a year to stop pucks, then have their players stand in front of him and do it for him.
Secondly, I can’t stand the Rangers because they don’t even pretend to press the issue when they get ahead by a single goal. There were times during their series against the Capitals when I thought Karl Alzner was going to let the clock run out standing behind his own net with the puck, while the Ranger forwards circled around the Capitals zone. Whatever happened to forechecking? Are teams like the Rangers so spooked with the prospect of getting caught up ice that they can’t bring themselves to try to create a turnover?
And yes, I do see an enormous amount of irony in the fact that I would rather see the Devils, who invented and perfected turgid hockey, triumph over an organization that has traditionally been more about star power and panache. But it’s almost as though the two teams have transposed themselves. The Devils are far more compelling to watch with their relentless pressure on the puck, their ability to spring forwards loose and their willingness to at least try to beat a defenseman one-on-one.
As we’ve seen over the years, it’s almost impossible to legislate against the way the Rangers are playing. When Bob Gainey proposed a couple of years ago to penalize players who leave their feet to stop a shot, it got nowhere. And it’s not as though the equipment manufacturers are going to start making inferior protective gear.
So the only thing we can do is to hope it doesn’t succeed. Because Lord help us if it does.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.