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The nasty side of the Stanley Cup playoffs

Canberra Times logo Canberra Times 25/05/2014 GEORGE VECSEY

War of attrition, war of wills. That's what the Stanley Cup playoffs are - more intense, more physical and more prolonged than the playoffs of any other sport.

The players keep crashing into each other, often legally, probing for injured parts, until somebody wins. Then they form a handshake line. There must be a moral in there somewhere.

But up close and dirty, there are a million nasty tricks, like a sweaty glove with a residue of ice, mashed into the puss of an opponent during a clinch in the corner. Just because.

The series between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens is vastly different from what preceded it from autumn to spring.

The importance of willpower was evident in the third game, with Montreal down by two games and on the road. The Canadiens roused themselves in the third period, a collective act. The television broadcasters commented on the rise in intensity, the shift in the wind, and then the Canadiens won in overtime. The admirable ratcheting up of desperation could have been detected on a seismograph.

The two squads were prepared to thud into each other again Sunday night at Madison Square Garden amid charges of foul play, espionage and the exaggeration of injuries.

The Canadiens are mad because their goalie Carey Price has been out since he was run over in the series opener by the Rangers' Chris Kreider - a total accident, the Rangers insist.

On Sunday, the Canadiens' Brandon Prust was starting a two-game suspension for creaming the Rangers' Derek Stepan in the third game, an action ruled legal but late by the NHL. Excuse me? Which was it?

Stepan was said to be suffering from a broken jaw. However, the Canadiens noted that he played 17 more minutes Thursday after the grievous injury.

This gallantry sounds like the old hockey cliche about the player who lost six teeth (or had his appendix removed) between periods but was stitched back up and skated in the third period.

The Canadiens fully expected to see, and feel, Stepan again Sunday. Not only that, but Prust and Stepan claim each other as a friend. This is part of the charm of playoff hockey, which has not changed in this era of very large players and very large salaries and extra referees and electronic surveillance. Induced pain and hard feelings still persist from game to game.

Teams list injuries as vaguely as possible - "upper body" or "lower body," meaning the aggressor has to be a generalist rather than a specialist. Otherwise, the boys would zero in on a wobbly elbow or aching calf.

This sustained hostility makes hockey different from any other sport. Baseball's postseason (please, Bud Selig insists, not playoffs) shifts from game to game because of starting pitchers and the geography of the ballparks. The football playoffs feature one-off affairs, without bad feelings building from weekend to weekend. In addition, football uses platoons for offense and defense and kicking, so only the interior linemen have a chance to really get up close and personal with one another. The long dunkathon of basketball can be nasty as well as spectacular, but technical fouls and personal fouls and the three-dimensional aspect of the game (some players levitate above trouble) tend to cut down on repeated aggression.

Then there is soccer, perhaps the closest to hockey in the building of momentum. During the recent Champions League semifinals, Atlético Madrid came out with a grim attitude, matching its hard-shell coach, Diego Simeone.

The outsiders muscled aside smooth Barcelona in the two-match semifinal. Then Atlético came out tough in the final on Saturday against the perennial champion Real Madrid, but injuries and weariness started to cut into its intensity. Real's desperation - and talent - ultimately prevailed, with the team tying the score late and adding three extra-time goals. After that, Simeone lost his mind, racing around the field, looking for trouble.

I was about to say that Simeone's cloddish rampage was very un-hockey-like, but one hockey coach did stage a charge on the opponent's locker room this season. That was John Tortorella, the former coach of the Rangers, who had moved on to coach Vancouver.

Tortorella was about the nastiest coach I've seen in hockey. When he was with the Rangers, I figured his snide comments and sour face were part of the job description for working in the House of Dolan, but the Rangers ultimately fired him (Vancouver subsequently dismissed him, too) and brought in Alain Vigneault, born in Quebec City, now coaching against his old team.

Vigneault appears to be a gentilhomme, but his team hits hard, certainly to the edge. Particularly during the Stanley Cup playoffs, a whole different season, a whole different sport.

New York Times

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