By Steve Silverman
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It’s often better to be the hunter than the hunted.
Especially in sports. When you are the big dog with the heavy-duty reputation, the challenger often has the added motivation of knocking off the bully as well as winning the game.
Last year, the New York Rangers were the hunted. They were the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference and they were expected to get to the Stanley Cup Finals after dominating in the regular season.
It didn’t work out that way. They never played their best hockey in the playoffs, as they were extended to seven games by the eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators and the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals.
Then they were taken down in rather embarrassing fashion by the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals.
This year, it’s a different story. The Rangers were the clear Eastern Conference favorites at the start of the shortened season and it didn’t look as if the Western Conference would have any team that was better.
The Rangers had added big-time scorer Rick Nash to the lineup, and that was the one element that was missing last year. They were not going to be stopped.
But preseason predictions mean little, and the Rangers started off on a bad note and rarely gave much of an indication that they were a force to be reckoned with this season.
The only thing that remained constant was John Tortorella’s short fuse and his frustration. He didn’t see the same kind of effort from his players and the Rangers were no longer a first-place team.
Instead, they had to fight, scratch and claw just to make the playoffs. Tortorella said that he thought his team would not have made it if not for a couple of trade-deadline deals that brought in gritty Ryane Clowe and Derick Brassard and sent Marian Gaborik shuffling off to Columbus.
Gaborik and Tortorella did not work well together. The coach was not happy with Gaborik’s tendencies to only skate hard on occasion.
That’s probably simplifying it a bit too much, but Tortorella’s not happy unless he can find a scapegoat for unfulfilled expectations.
The Rangers picked up after the trades and they did play their best hockey in the final three weeks of the regular season. They qualified for the postseason with just days to go in the regular season.
So this year, the Rangers are doing the hunting from the No. 6 seed. They are hunting the Washington Capitals in the first round. If they are successful, they will almost certainly get a chance to try their luck with the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins, who have taken over the role of favorites.
It doesn’t feel right. Tortorella and the Rangers may be trying to paint themselves as the righteous Black and Blue team that gets it done with hard work, but the Capitals look like the better team going into this series.
It starts with coaching. Adam Oates is in his first season as an NHL head coach, and he tried to give the Capitals a system that best took advantage of their talents. To Oates, that meant getting Alex Ovechkin back on track.
Ovechkin had not been at his best either of the last two years and was awful for the first month of this season. But Oates — who does not scream at or browbeat his players — kept teaching his system and the Capitals players simply bought in.
There’s plenty of defensive responsibility and offensive creativity. Once Ovechkin’s fuse got lit, the Capitals took off.
They were the worst team in the Eastern Conference at the start of the season and they ended up as the second-best.
Never mind the records. They were playing far better than Montreal, Boston or any of the other Eastern Conference teams except the Penguins.
The Rangers may be able to push the Caps, but this is Washington’s series to win. The Rangers may get two games, but it’s Oates, Ovechkin and the Capitals who will go on to the second round.
The Rangers are going hunting, but they won’t bag their prey.
Tortorella will be left having to find someone else to blame.
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