Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football.
Zenon Konopka never minced words in his season with the Islanders. No surprise, then, that he was honest as ever about his feelings regarding this Rangers-Senators series, now tied 1-1 and heading to Ottawa with some momentum for the eighth-seeded Sens.
“There’s going to be a lot of stitches and blood before this series is over,” Konopka said, flashing his mashed-face grin.
The Senators went for the oldest of old-time hockey cliches Saturday night at the Garden: If you can’t beat ’em, beat ’em up. Matt Carkner attacked Brian Boyle for Boyle’s sin of a few gloved rabbit punches to the head of Sens star defenseman Erik Karlsson in Game 1.
Those looked like love taps compared with the haymakers Carkner threw just 135 seconds into Game 2, with Boyle not fighting back. Carkner was ejected, leaving Ottawa a defenseman short, but the Senators took the violence and aggression and ran with it, dragging the Rangers into a brutal, nasty pit for the entire game.
Senators defenseman Chris Phillips elbowed Ryan Callahan in the head, drawing a minor. Carl Hagelin delivered an elbow to Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson’s face, drawing a major and knocking Alfredsson from the game with what certainly could be a concussion.
That was the only lingering injury from this night of ugliness. Somehow, though, it worked; the Senators drew on the adrenaline, to a man saying that Carkner’s distasteful attack lit a fire beneath them.
The Rangers have played the same way all season — “the right way,” as John Tortorella has said often, and as it says on the playoff T-shirts some Rangers are wearing. (On the back it reads “the only way,” in case there’s any confusion.) They are a physical team, a grinding team that doesn’t shy away from fights or shoving matches or anything else that makes hockey, especially playoff hockey, a thrill to watch in spite of all the casual violence.
They lost that plot a bit Saturday night, undone after not gaining enough of a lead during the Senators’ first-period hijinks and committing some of their own emotional sins in the second period.
The Rangers are the better team here, and it seems that Senators coach Paul MacLean understands that. It’s why he went so quickly to the goon squad of Konopka and Carkner, why he sent those two and Chris Neil over the boards to start the game and send the message that the Senators won’t be pushed around.
Konopka, the ultimate team guy, played a smart 11:30, much of it after Alfredsson left. He assisted on the tying goal and Neil, another savvy veteran, scored the overtime winner.
The Rangers still can take command in this series by sticking with what they’ve built this year and not getting swept up in the emotions of revenge and recriminations.
They have the better goaltender, the more complete team and more of a work ethic to rely upon than a Senators team that MacLean admitted had some “stardust in their eyes” for Game 1 and whose inexperience can be exposed.
If, as Konopka says, there are stitches and blood still to come, however, the Senators indeed could steal this series with brute force. They already have done it once.