Top Shelf: Rangers get back to the grind

They may not play the most exciting brand of hockey, but the New York Rangers have found a winning formula that is as effective as the natural process of erosion.

Like erosion, where soil and rock are removed from the earth's surface by wind or water, the Rangers' ability to wear the opposition down seems to be an inevitable occurrence.

Under head coach John Tortorella, New York has become a defensive juggernaut that relies on shot blocking and the superb goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist to grind out close victories. Although the tooth-and-nail style has allowed the opposition to stay close in both games and series this postseason, the Rangers have been able to outlast the competition.

Since New York was coming off seven-game series in each of the first two rounds, there was some concern the Rangers would be tired heading into the Eastern Conference finals. However, a 3-0 win over the New Jersey Devils in Game 1 went a long way toward putting those fears to rest.

After eliminating Washington in Game 7 on Saturday, the Rangers had just one day off to prepare for the Devils on Monday. New Jersey appeared to be the better team for the first two periods, but New York weathered the storm and the teams were tied at 0-0 after 40 minutes of play.

If New York was battling fatigue in Game 1, it certainly did not show it in the third period. The Rangers got stronger as the game wore on and never wavered after defenseman Dan Girardi tallied the game's first goal just 53 seconds into the period.

At times the Rangers may look tired because they're not a team that pushes the pace offensively. This means they can go long stretches without generating many scoring chances, but as long as Lundqvist holds down the fort -- something he's done all season long -- New York is eventually able to capitalize on a mistake and turn it into a game-changing goal.

The outspoken Tortorella is one person who is sick of answering questions about how tired his club should be at this stage. It's a valid question since no team has ever won a Stanley Cup title after going seven games in each of the first two rounds, but New York's bench boss doesn't think fatigue is an issue at all.

"I don't know where you guys get all this stuff being tired. If we're tired this time of the year, there's something the matter," Tortorella said. "We still have a month to play. You might as well not even ask me questions about being tired. We're not a tired hockey club. We are ready to play."

While the fatigue factor was expected to be an advantage for the Devils, if the Rangers aren't tired, then the task for New Jersey going forward will be to adjust to their new opponent. In the last round, New Jersey faced a Philadelphia team that was used to playing an attacking style and the Devils were able to force the Flyers into committing many costly turnovers.

Although the Devils' forecheck was effective early in Game 1 against the Rangers, New York is a much more disciplined club than Philadelphia and will not be pressured into forcing the issue on offense. Of course, the Rangers also have the always-steady Lundqvist between the pipes to erase most mistakes committed by his teammates, while the Flyers ride the roller coaster that is goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.

Devils head coach Peter DeBoer and his assistants pushed the right buttons in Round 2, allowing New Jersey to win four straight against the Flyers after suffering a Game 1 loss. It seems unlikely New Jersey will be able to deliver as dramatic a turnaround in this conference final series. The Rangers are simply better equipped to handle the pressure that the Devils are able to produce with their relentless forecheck.

The hockey world has been waiting all season for the Rangers to run out of gas, but if consecutive Game 7s and a one-day layoff between rounds didn't slow the club down, it doesn't seem like anything will.

Like waves crashing into a rocky shore, the Rangers never let up and always seem to get their way in the end.


Although it had been rumored for quite some time that Dale Hunter had no interest in remaining the Washington Capitals head coach beyond this season, it was still surprising when the club announced on Monday that Hunter was indeed leaving the post to return to his duties with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.

While it's refreshing that Hunter, who is co-owner, president and head coach of the junior club, chose the Knights over the glamour of leading an NHL team, his decision leaves Washington in limbo. Hunter completely transformed the Capitals from an up-tempo offensive club into a defensive powerhouse that resembled Tortorella's Rangers. In fact, before succumbing to the Rangers in Game 7, it appeared that Hunter's Caps were a mirror image of top-seeded New York.

In some ways Hunter was the NHL's version of Kwai Chang Caine, the character David Carradine played in the popular 1970s TV show, "Kung Fu." Like Caine, Hunter, who replaced fired head coach Bruce Boudreau in November, swooped into D.C., fixed what was wrong with the Capitals and quickly moved along.

The decision for general manager George McPhee is who to bring in as Hunter's replacement and whether or not he wants the next bench boss to stick to the defensive blueprint that the predecessor utilized to solid results. Do the Capitals continue on the trail blazed by Hunter or revert to the more offensive style of play they used under Boudreau?

Ultimately, McPhee's will need to consider how his next head coach meshes with superstar winger Alex Ovechkin. It's no secret Ovechkin's ice time dwindled under Hunter, but the Russian sniper is still the face of the franchise and it seems unlikely that the team is ready to part ways with No. 8.

Although Ovechkin's playing time suffered as a result of Hunter's strict game plan, he actually was a better player by the time the playoffs came around. Sure, Hunter's bold choices may have rubbed Washington's star player the wrong way, but whether Ovechkin knows it or not, the coach actually helped add a missing dimension to his game.

Hunter proved many points about Washington's hockey team during his brief tenure. McPhee would be unwise to simply go back to the way things were before Hunter came to town.