If you didn't see the Washington Capitals beat the Rangers 4-0 on Monday night, but took a look at the box score you might draw two conclusions. First, that Sean Avery, with 18 penalty minutes, finally snapped and, second, that the Capitals drew a ton of those penalties because they finally assaulted the net with their full powers.
If you did watch the game, though, you probably drew a different set of conclusions. Not about the Capitals driving to the net, because they did that with gusto, but certainly about the penalties, particularly in the second period. The referees seemed determined to play the entire period with one team or the other on the power play, with phantom calls sending players from both teams to the sin bin.
It took a game that had been exciting in the first 20 minutes and turned it into a chore to watch, called with a tightness that would have been out of place in the regular season. The refs made a mockery of "playoff hockey," the end-to-end, no-whistle game that lifts hockey to its highest level. It's a shame we didn't get to see it on Monday, and troubling for a Ranger team that may actually be worse with a man advantage than they are at even-strength or on the penalty kill.
The treatment of Avery was the easiest way to tell that the refs were determined to play a role in deciding how the game would be played. Avery deserved his two minutes for roughing in the second, and earned his 12 minutes for trying to inhabit the dark corners of rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov's mind, but the other three penalties seemed to be mostly based on his nameplate and not anything he actually did wrong.
None of the above should be read as laying blame for the defeat. That was more or less decided when Ryan Callahan whiffed on an empty net in the first period. Alexander Semin scored his second goal moments later, and the Rangers never really came close to scoring on Varlamov again. They showed the lifelessness of the Tom Renney era, with Scott Gomez's no-show particularly galling, and allowed the Capitals to dictate the tempo frm the first moment.
The Rangers may still be up 2-1, but goaltending remains their only edge. Varlamov has been Henrik Lundqvist's equal for two straight nights which isn't an equation that adds up to a series win.
Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City and is a contributor to FanHouse.com and ProFootballTalk.com in addition to his duties for NBCNewYork.com.