By the time John Tortorella turned to face the fans behind his bench last night at Verizon Center, the New York Rangers team he coaches trailed by four goals in the third period. Tortorella had already toyed with his own personnel, benching the player who most annoys Washington Capitals fans, forward Sean Avery, then yanking the man who had mystified the Capitals through the series' first four games, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
The agitating that happened next, though, surprised the Capitals fans seated in the first few rows, taking in a Game 5 that would either save their season or end it. With 13 minutes 27 seconds remaining in the game, Tortorella, the fans said, became so angry with them that he hurled a water bottle over the plexiglass that separates the bench from the crowd, a bottle that struck Capitals' season ticket-holder Claudette Chandonia in the head. He then grabbed one of his player's sticks, stepped onto the bench and lunged toward the crowd, with the stick, as his entire Rangers team -- and the four game officials -- stood around him on the bench and on the ice.
"He was losing and he was frustrated, I guess," said Chandonia, who lives in the District. "I couldn't believe it. I looked up, and he was throwing the water bottle -- and then it hit me right here, right in the head, and it bounced off me."
This, then, punctuated a brutal night for the Rangers, who had been in control of the series, leading three games to one, but now face a revitalized Washington outfit that may have done the unthinkable: rattle Lundqvist. In the preceding days, the Capitals had talked not of being beaten by the Rangers as a whole, but being beaten by Lundqvist alone. Last night, Lundqvist allowed two goals on the first four shots he faced, and four on the 14 he saw before Tortorella pulled him.
"It's on me," Lundqvist said. "No question."
Now, though, the pressure may be back on the Rangers, and it began to show during that third period. With Avery -- who had taken 24 minutes in penalties over the first four games -- benched because of a lack of discipline, Tortorella was the one who took on the role of hothead.
Fans in the seats around Chandonia, who said she was struck by the water bottle, confirmed the incident, and an in-house video feed from Verizon Center showed Tortorella throwing the bottle over the outstretched hand of a security guard. Fans also said Tortorella squirted water through two panes of glass before he threw the bottle.
Tortorella, however, would not address the issue -- or what led him to become so incensed -- after his team's 4-0 loss, which forced a sixth game tomorrow in New York.
"Ask me a question about the game," Tortorella said. "That's nothing. Has nothing to do with tonight."
Pushed to address whether he threw anything into the stands, Tortorella said: "Ask me a question about the game. Please."
Though the Rangers gathered around Tortorella during the skirmish -- and forward Aaron Voros appeared to yell at the fans as well -- the players pleaded ignorance afterward.
"When I looked over, 'Torts' was turned and facing the crowd," Rangers forward Marc Staal said. "I think he might have got sprayed or something, but I don't know."
Rangers spokesman John Rosasco said the team would have no statement about the incident, including what precipitated it. Colin Campbell, the NHL's director of hockey operations who is in charge of discipline, did not return an e-mail seeking comment last night. Gary Handleman, the president of facilities for Verizon Center, said no fans were ejected, and the guard closest to the scene -- the one who tried to block the water bottle when Tortorella cocked his arm -- said no fans threw anything into the bench.
Still, television replays showed Tortorella drying his suit, as if a drink had been spilled on him.
"Nothing was that unusual," said Alex Boyle of Baltimore, who was seated in the same row as Chandonia. "Obviously, some people were heckling. But no one was banging on the glass. The usher was right there, and when people were banging on the glass earlier in the game, he said, 'You can't do that.'
"And then I looked up, and he was shaking up a bottle, and he threw it."
Said Jeff Brown of Potomac: "It was like, 'Where did that come from?' "
That, then, is what the Rangers were left muttering: Where, exactly, did this result come from? They now head back to New York with their goalie's shakiest performance in his most recent past, and their coach almost certain to face questions about what led to his own meltdown in the midst of his team's.