OTTAWA, CANADA - APRIL 23: Chris Neil #25 of the Ottawa Senators and Brandon Prust #8 of the New York Rangers fight in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Scotiabank Place on April 23, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
Injured stars, bitter wars of words, paranoia about the officiating: The Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers have set up an ideal Game 7.
When the lights went out for perhaps the last time this season at Scotiabank Place and the media filed their stories for the night, what remained was not merely the analysis of yet another close game but also enough bitter story lines to satisfy any audience.
They say rivalries aren't truly born until two teams have battled each other in a playoff series. Monday night the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators firmed up this new rivalry's genesis. The ostensible headline is the Rangers' 3-2 victory that forced Game 7. The real themes go much deeper in setting up a win-or-die finale at Madison Square Garden.
These combatants will carry into Game 7 a variety of issues and insecurities, from vengeful enforcers to damaged stars to questions about officiating, of course. To review:
Brian Boyle is still out, unlikely to return for Game 7, thanks to a concussion delivered by ...
... Chris Neil, who not only fought Brandon Prust (and won), but also poured salt in the wound by scoring the Senators' first goal. Prust himself had hit Senators phenom Erik Karlsson after the whistle without being penalized; it was Boyle's punching of Karlsson in Game 1 that ignited the cycle of violence in this series.
Neil is seen as a villain in this series, so it was particularly poignant when Michael Del Zotto caught Neil good behind the net with a blindside hit. All's fair in goonery, right? Neil, being Neil, publicly vowed revenge next time he caught Del Zotto "with his head down." What, and you thought NHLers lost respect for one another?
With Boyle out, hot Boston College prospect Chris Kreider is getting his feet wet -- scoring a goal in just 10:46 of ice time.
On the other side, the Senators also rushed a rookie into action, adding Swedish playoff MVP Jakob Silfverberg to the lineup. He played 9:02, picked up a minor penalty and tossed a few shots Henrik Lundqvist's way. (Just one was officially on goal.)
The officiating: The game changed when the Rangers were handed a 5-on-3 based on an awful goalie interference call on Nick Foligno. As Senators blog Silver Seven points out though, Foligno's reputation robs him of any benefit of the doubt.
Oh, and the Rangers later had their own reason for paranoia, as the on-ice officials and replay reviewers in Toronto let stand a Jason Spezza goal that sure looked a lot like it was kicked in by Neil. Not content to hear the NHL following the letter of the law -- you can't overturn an on-ice call without conclusive replay evidence -- Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was uncomfortably irate at the time and after the game even said "someone wanted [the Senators] back in the game."
To top it all off, the first six games have been as close as can be, with the goals scored even at 12 apiece.
Injured stars. Green rookies filling in. Players hating each other, taking names. Widespread paranoia about referee decisions. Previously unfamiliar opposing fanbases now shouting each other down. It sure sounds like the perfect setup for an ideal Game 7 atmosphere.
Just the way playoff hockey intended.