Rangers less than welcoming hosts in Tortorella's New York return
After his Vancouver Canucks dropped a 5-2 decision to the New York Rangers on Saturday afternoon, Canucks coach John Tortorella was talking about the moment he deked himself. "Took a wrong turn once or twice," the coach said in the corridor of Madison Square Garden. It's understandable.
After four full years and part of another as the man behind the Ranger bench, Tortorella was back at the scene of his old home, where he left a smorgasbord of mixed results and conflicted feelings. "The stuff prior to the game, seeing the trainers, I'm not going to lie," he said, "it's a little weird for me. Once the game starts, it's another game. You move on."
Moving couldn't have been easy. The divorce was messy. When Tortorella was dismissed from the New York Rangers on May 29, he left behind a swath of animosity. Some of his core players had campaigned for his removal, saying that his whip-cracking style and sandpaper demeanor had run its course, especially with a smallish, skilled lineup that was ill-configured to play the disciplined, rambunctious style he wanted them to play.
Most of all, he left behind a resume of expectations that were never met. On average, a team should expect to win a Stanley Cup once every 30 years, but New York is not an average town and the job at Madison Square Garden carries a weightier burden: win a title or fail. Simple.
Nobody absorbed more scrutiny from Tortorella than Chris Kreider, the young forward who waited until his old coach's return Saturday to have a breakout game, scoring the first hat trick of his career. Kreider was one of the Rangers who never quite emerged with Tortorella as head coach.
After finishing a stellar career at Boston College, he arrived in time for the post-season during the Rangers' run to the conference finals in 2012. He brought a world of speed and clever skills, but didn't have the defensive knowhow to match his offensive instincts. Without a full training camp during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, Kreider never adjusted to the role Tortorella wanted him to play. He managed just three points in 23 games and was sent to Connecticut in the AHL for part of the year.
With a fresh start, he now has six goals and ten assists in 20 games and looks like a different player. Of course he said all the right things. Seeing his old coach and source of frequent frustration was not an additional incentive to play well. "We needed two points and I'm trying to play as much as possible," he said. "Nothing special."
Still the lessons learned from Tortorella's time have stayed with him. "You watch the game from the press box and pick up things that you might not be aware of on the ice," he said. "You just want that next chance."
A week before Tortorella's firing, the Canucks said goodbye to Alain Vigneault, their coach of seven seasons. Under Vigneault, the Canucks also won consecutive Presidents' Trophies in 2010-11 and 2011-12, captured five straight division titles and reached the seventh game of the finals in 2011, before falling to the Boston Bruins on home ice.
The knock against that generation of Canucks, with gentlemanly star players Daniel and Henrik Sedin and snake-bitten goaltender Roberto Luongo, was that they were too soft. The word about the Rangers was that they played like a team that seemed beaten down. The simple narrative read that the Rangers needed a Vigneault-type who could pat guys on the back and the Canucks need a Tortorella-type who could climb on players' backs when their play slumped. In essence, the clubs traded coaches, each meeting a need from the other's discards. Three weeks after firing Tortorella, the Rangers hired Vigneault, who will return to Vancouver with his new club on April 1.
Although Tortorella insisted this game was not about him, surely, he knew it was. Likewise, as he often said the story in New York was not about him, his post-game diatribes and abrasive tone thrust him into the spotlight he said he didn't want.
At times, he took heat off his players; other times, he simply turned up the heat on everyone around him. When asked last year why he wouldn't give more power play time to speedy winger Carl Hagelin, Tortorella replied, "He stinks" and then elaborated at length on the shortcomings of his impressionable player.
Perhaps it was better, then, that the Canucks arrived from Ottawa on Friday night with a game to play in Carolina on Sunday. In and out. Let's move on.
"We're going in there to coach and play and get the hell out of there." Tortorella said after the game in Ottawa. Later he downplayed the impending reunion. "Honestly, we've beaten this thing up. It's another game on the schedule. That's all it's about ... I won't even hear [the New York crowd]. It's a very important game for us. We still need to prepare against a good hockey club ... That's all we do anyway. We've talked about this guys, we've played this out. I've been with a different hockey club for 30 games."
In four-plus seasons in New York, Tortorella's Rangers were always competitive. As much as they could, they fit his personality of selfless, often ornery play, finishing near the top of the league in blocks, hits and fights. They had a winning record each year, but as they failed to reach the finals each season, finishing with a 19-25 post-season record under Tortorella, the coach's exacting methods became less tolerable. After the Bruins bounced the Rangers in five games of a decisive second-round series, it was clear that Torts' term had run its course.
These Canucks have the hallmarks of a Tortorella-coached team: aggressive defensively, conservative offensively and prone to wearing down. These Canucks lead the NHL in penalty killing at 88 percent, but their power play is just 26th in the league at a paltry 13 percent. The Canucks have scored 31 goals in the second periods of games, but just 18 in the third periods.
These Canucks rely more on their point men to generate shots, playing safer and more predictably with a lower propensity for turnovers -- but also less creativity -- low in the offensive zone. On Nov. 2, Alex Edler became just the third defenseman in 12 years to record 12 shots in a game when he fired away against the Maple Leafs.
Only four teams in the league have blocked more shots and just five have given the pucks away fewer times than Vancouver.
Despite the club's inconsistent goal production, the Sedins are both putting up good numbers. Through 28 games, including Saturday's tilt in New York, Henrik and Daniel lead the club with 27 and 25 points and both are +5 for the year.
On Thursday, Vancouver broke a 1-5-2 skid by scoring four straight goals, including Daniel's 300th career marker, to overcome the Senators, 5-2.
Still, if the season ended today, the Canucks would finish one place out of a playoff spot, not sufficient for any team, but especially one with Vancouver's talents. "The onus is on us to gain some traction," Tortorella said after Saturday's game. "Everyone has to give some skin. Everyone has to be involved."
On New York's first goal Saturday, Edler allowed Kreider to speed into the slot to convert a lead pass for New York's first tally. After the goal, Tortorella motioned Edler to the end of the bench, near backup goaltender Eddie Lack, then reached around his assistant coach Mike Sullivan and berated his defenseman, pointing and screaming at Edler. After Rick Nash scored during the first minute of the second period to put New York ahead, 3-0, Tortorella motioned for Lack to replace Luongo.
Perhaps it was the lingering effects of tryptophan two days after Thanksgiving, or perhaps the increasing prices that some Ranger fans say they can no longer afford, but the building was quiet for most of the game. The Garden does not make mention of the head coaches during pre-game introductions and Tortorella's face never appeared in an isolated shot on the overhead scoreboard during the contest.
Only once after New York took a 3-0 lead was there any reference to the former coach. As the organist began hitting notes to lead the crowd in a chant of "Let's-go-Ran-gers," those in the upper reaches instead broke into, "That's-for-you-Torts."
It was a reminder of days past and a promise that will simply be left unfulfilled.