The determinant point of angst and apprehension could be isolated when New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella engaged in a war of words with a Washington Capitals fan in the latter stages of a 4-0 loss to the Capitals on Friday.
Although a beer was tossed in his direction and splattered on the shoulder of Tortorella’s suit, that incident will bear little significance in a series in which dysfunctional tandems and unconventional momentum shifts have superseded all else that has transpired throughout the 2009 NHL playoffs.
In Game 5, however, the media elected to prey on the conspicuous absence of the proverbial Sean Avery, a natural response by sports journalists looking for the dramatic headline.
And the fact that the Rangers remained mute about any reason why he was scratched from the lineup only veiled the cause.
But Avery did speak with Larry Brooks of the New York Post, stating that Tortorella was in the right to ostracize the provocative forward.
“I totally stand behind what Torts did," Avery said before the contest at the Verizon Centre. “The team comes first.
"I made a mistake. I took two bad penalties (in Game 4). I put the game in jeopardy. It wasn't something I did intentionally, but that's no excuse. I did it.
"I realize that Torts is making me a better player. The team always comes first. I'll do anything for these guys. No one feels worse than me at this point."
While there are arguments that would justify Avery’s exclusion for the match, what has really provided water cooler fodder is the retroactive impact he may have had if he were inserted into the lineup.
Would a simple conversation about on-ice ethics amid a pressurized playoff series have sufficed? Would Avery have been a potential source of production in a game that witnessed not a single goal from the Blueshirts and trying experience for goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who was pulled after the second period?
What must remain in focus is Avery’s penchant for “crossing the line”—a cliché that is not only overused, but has lost its meaning in any context.
If the line, in the case of the Rangers’ 2-1 Game 4 victory in which Avery took two senseless penalties in the waning minutes of the third period, is composure, then Tortorella should be applauded for making the correct decision—regardless of what pundits have insinuated.
To pull out the winning percentage with Avery in the lineup—which stood at .660 before Game 5—compared to a Rangers team without his services—which weighed in and around the .500 mark—would be callous in analyzing Tortorella’s choice in that he was confronted by a habitual pattern of Avery’s actions and was compelled to respond.
If Sean Avery had been in the lineup, the possibility of him taking an unnecessary penalty could have also been the butt of much ridicule, too.
John Tortorella made an overt decision, and many other coaches would have done the same thing. When a coach sees a flame ravaging through the dressing room, it’s his job to extinguish it. Not only was Avery inflammable in the past, but he has shown in New York that he can be similarly detrimental to his team if no course of action is taken to cease further wildfire.
As long as pundits have the ability to wield the power of a Monday morning quarterback, though, retrospective analysis of decisions gone sour will continue.
In this case, such criticism isn’t warranted.