Arthur Staple Arthur Staple

Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football.

Let the gamesmanship begin in this Eastern Conference finals.

Game 4 is Monday night in Newark, another pivotal game that will be won in the trenches. But the chirping between games reached its loudest level Sunday.

John Tortorella fired first, in relation to Devils coach Peter DeBoer's "head-hunting, plain and simple" reply to a question about Brandon Prust's elbow to Anton Volchenkov's head in Game 3 on Saturday. Sunday, Prust was suspended by the NHL for Monday night's game.

Tortorella wanted NHL vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan to look closer at an unpenalized elbow from Dainius Zubrus to Anton Stralman's face, and a leaping hit by Zach Parise on Michael Del Zotto.

Tortorella asked for more attention to the Devils' "pick" plays on faceoffs, when their forwards interfere with Rangers penalty killers to free up point shots -- Patrik Elias did this to perfection on Ilya Kovalchuk's Game 2 goal.

He questioned the Devils' integrity a bit, saying he wants his own players to get up after big hits, which Volchenkov did not do immediately -- presumably because getting elbowed in the head leaves you a little wonky.

"There's some gamesmanship for you, huh?" said Tortorella, who seemed to barely contain a smirk.

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In fact, DeBoer thought the whole thing was, in a word, "comical."

"Their coach suggests a lot of things," Elias told reporters Sunday.

The talk between games of this 2-1 series was about embellishing hits, dirty plays and whether players should stay on the ice after getting conked.

It wasn't about the Rangers' inability to capitalize on the two 2-1 series leads they've had against Ottawa and Washington. Nor about how Tortorella's team has been outplayed for large chunks of the first three games, bending severely but not breaking thanks to Henrik Lundqvist and his cast of shot-blockers and defense-first teammates.

So Tortorella is taking the focus off his team's shortcomings. DeBoer knows it. The Devils know it. Even Tortorella's players know it. But such is the life of an NHL series, especially one this tight, this deep in the tournament.

Coaches and players are looking for any edge. The Rangers have not been able to expand that edge to a two-game lead in any series, so perhaps Tortorella felt it was time to change tactics.

The fact is, his team plays its best when its back is up, when it can really get behind its "us against the world" mentality. The Rangers felt that way often in their first-round series against the Senators, when Matt Carkner got one game for attacking Brian Boyle and Carl Hagelin got three games for an elbow to Daniel Alfredsson's face -- followed by Chris Neil's blindside hit that concussed Boyle and drew no penalty or suspension.

Prust's one-game ban is a blow, given the detail work he has done so often. But it is also a rallying point, something the Rangers can and will use to push forth when they feel anyone -- the Devils, the officials, the NHL -- is out to get them.

That may seem comical, to steal DeBoer's line. The Rangers were the top team in the East, their goaltender may win a Vezina Trophy and they play about 15 blocks south of the NHL's home office, in the continent's biggest market.

But this is the playoffs, and the Rangers are two wins from their first Finals in 18 years.

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There's competition all over the ice. Tortorella decided to spice up the battle off of it Sunday, and we'll see if it makes a difference Monday night.