No team sport has more of a dual personality than hockey. If the NHL regular season is “Semi-Tough,” then the playoffs are “There Will Be Blood.” You’re talking about a whole different kind of physicality this time of year — as the Capitals and New York Rangers are illustrating.
Caps coach Bruce Boudreau’s complaints about the hard knocks on Mike Green — in particular a hit he described as “a dirty shot” to his defenseman’s post-concussive head — are just an outgrowth of the wham-bam nature of the postseason. You don’t see this sort of thing in playoff baseball. Pitchers don’t suddenly start bouncing pitches off batter’s helmets. You don’t really see it in football or basketball, either, except in isolated (and usually penalized) instances. But playoff hockey is less restrained, has more of a state-of-nature feel. Think of it as Ids on Parade.
When Rangers coach John Tortorella said before Game 3 that “it’s a whole new animal coming into Madison Square Garden here,” it’s more than an interesting choice of words. There’s a subtext there, and it isn’t very subtle. Playoff hockey, at its purest, is animal hockey - not that there’s anything wrong with that (to a point, at least). It’s getting in touch with your inner Scott Stevens. Remember him, Caps fans? Jason Arnott, who played with him in New Jersey, certainly does.
“He played mean every night,” Arnott said after the Capitals’ practice Tuesday. “[Won] three Stanley Cups, and everyone followed him.”
His might be a more apt description of playoff hockey — not bestial, necessarily, just playing mean every night. No mercy (and only passing regard for the rules). If you happen across somebody wearing a different jersey, lay a body on him. It’s all very medieval.
“I remember my first playoff series in Edmonton,” Jason Chimera said. “I thought: Wow, this is playoff hockey. I don’t know how to explain it. The atmosphere is better, the buildings get louder. It’s one of those times that it’s great to be a hockey player.
“And every game means so much. Maybe the NBA’s a little bit the same way, but the NFL’s only one game. During a seven-game series, you develop kind of an anger toward some guys. “
I ask him to imagine a seven-game Super Bowl. He smiles. “It would be crazy. I don’t think there’d be anybody left [at the end].”
Playoff hockey is only slightly less crazy. There are glass-rattling checks into the boards. There are I-95-sized pileups in the crease. There are sticks doing things only sticks can do. And there are officials trying to adjudicate the mayhem, trying to distinguish between the felonious and the merely unfriendly.
“We play so many games in the regular season,” Matt Bradley said. “It’s tough to play with that much intensity for all 82. I mean, you do your best, but you’re not going to have the same energy every night. But in the playoffs, you don’t know how long you’re going to play, so you have to play every game like it’s your last.”
To which Matt Hendricks added: “I think the playoffs are the way they are because everybody is very desperate. It’s a race to see who can win four games first. Everybody wants to give it their best shot.”
Those shots, though, sometimes stray over the line of legality. They can even be dangerous. That’s the point Boudreau was making when he beefed about the blindsiding of Green by Rangers defenseman Marc Staal. Occasionally, the playoffs get a tad too, well, playoff-y.
But there isn’t a whole lot that can be done about it. As the players will tell you, it’s in the playoffs’ DNA. When the stakes are raised, the game gets more primal. Even with all the rule changes to aid the offense, “there’s not a lot of pretty plays anymore,” Arnott said. “To make a tic-tac-toe play with three or four guys is hard to do now.” In the postseason, that goes double.
The Capitals will never get to where they want to go until they become more comfortable in this alternate hockey universe. They’ve changed their style of play, reinvented themselves as the kind of defensive-minded club that tends to succeed in the playoffs, but the transformation may not be complete. The Rangers outhit them decisively in Game 3 — and climbed back into the series. The Caps can’t allow that to keep happening. They need to play mean every night.