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Too late for Rangers even with beefed-up security?

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Hockey people love to say nothing else in sports matches the intensity level of a Game 7.

But if the one scheduled to decide the first-round playoff series between the Rangers and Capitals is anything like Game 5, we could be looking at too much of a good thing. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman already has his hands full tamping down goon-like behavior on the ice. The last thing he needs is another outbreak among the paying customers.

That's why you'll see beefed-up security Tuesday night in Washington's Verizon Center, to prevent a repeat of what happened last week, when New York coach John Tortorella got into it with some fans behind the visiting bench near the tail end of a 4-0 loss.

But if I were the commish, I'd borrow a vendor's uniform, grab a crate filled with sodas and patrol the area myself - just to be sure.

It's one thing to let your refs wait until fights on the ice are winding down before stepping in. It's another when the security guards in the arena apparently feel free to do the same. And according to the Rangers' version of events in Game 5, that's exactly what they did: nothing, until it was too late.

In a letter to Bettman, general manager Glen Sather complained that some Capitals fans took advantage of gaps in the glass panels behind Tortorella to deliver - up close and personal - a stream of ugly, homophobic taunts throughout the game. Despite team officials' complaints to a guard standing nearby, and later to a supervisor, the same fans were waiting for Tortorella when the third period began.

When the abuse resumed, the coach took matters into his own hands, first squirting water at fans, then tossing the bottle into the crowd and finally, brandishing a stick before assistant Jim Schoenfeld restrained him. That episode led to Tortorella's suspension for Sunday's Game 6 in New York, which ended with another listless loss, this time by a 5-3 score.

A fine might have been punishment enough, but either way, if the Rangers are going to get satisfaction, they're going to have to get it themselves. NHL spokesman Frank Brown said the commissioner received the team's request to punish the Capitals for "gross negligence in ensuring the safety of the personnel on the Rangers' bench" and turned it down.

"We don't anticipate any further problems," Brown said.

That better be the case, too, since the commissioner owes the coach at least that much.

The league's decision to banish Tortorella from the bench at Madison Square Garden wasn't the reason New York lost Sunday, or why Washington has roared back from a 3-games-to-1 deficit.

It's not the commissioner's fault, either, that goalie Henrik Lundqvist suddenly sprung a leak high on the glove-hand side and started surrendering goals in bunches. Bettman didn't cause the power-play to go cold, nor did he force management to bring back superpest Sean Avery, who's been the inspiration for a rash of stupid penalties New York has piled up at great cost.

The Rangers did all those things to themselves.

It's also true that Tortorella can be an impetuous guy, even when things are going good. He has a habit of rotating goalies, no matter who's hot, and it's backfiring in this series. Ditto for his decision to have the Rangers rough up Caps star Alex Ovechkin; after a slow start, he's pin-balling his way around the rink with devastating effect, setting up teammates and knocking down New Yorkers in the bargain.

"If somebody play against me hard, I love it. I just wake up," Ovechkin said, "and play my game."

Unthinkable just a few days ago, the series appears to be playing into Washington's hands. The Caps came back from a 3-1 deficit last season against Philadelphia, but lost Game 7, a lesson the players claimed they learned the hard way.

The Rangers haven't ever blown a 3-1 series advantage, and if the collapse becomes complete, chances are good Tortorella won't keep the job very long. There's no blaming Bettman for his fast-fading fortunes, but if a coach is going to get fired, it should be for his failure to control the players out on the ice in front him; not because he lost his temper for a moment trying to shut up a few goons spitting and spewing vile language from the seats behind his back.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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