Business as usual for John Tortorella
NEW YORK -- John Tortorella's brief, mostly snarky, often caustic encounters with the media covering these playoffs have become an ongoing, mildly amusing sideshow.
While the media may not like it, they're not the story. And how the New York Rangers head coach treats them or mistreats them, as the case may be, is really moot when it comes to the outcome of this series with the New Jersey Devils, which is now tied at one game apiece.
What is not moot, however, is the high-stakes game of poker Tortorella is playing with his lineup as he tries to coax more offense and fewer mistakes out of his crew. Specifically, Tortorella is squarely on the line because of his decision to bench the team's highest-paid player (in terms of annual cap hit), Marian Gaborik, for most of the third period after a costly turnover led to the Devils' tying goal in Game 2.
Of course, on the line is exactly where Tortorella has spent most of his coaching career. And it's not as if Tortorella doesn't have a history of coming down on his players for miscues.
Go back to his days with the Tampa Bay Lightning, with whom he won a Stanley Cup in 2004, and the Lightning's biggest stars, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and his current go-to guy in New York Brad Richards, weren't spared time stapled to the bench for various misdeeds.
That's life with Tortorella, and he'll make no apologies for the way he conducts his business.
"I think all coaches do it. You're trying to put players into situations that are going to try to help you to win games or help you in certain situations and momentum swings. Conversely, some guys when you just don't think it's working, they don't see the ice or they don't get the minutes. So those are decisions that we make every game," Tortorella said Thursday during one of his more loquacious encounters with the media this playoff year.
"You guys like calling them benchings and all that stuff, but as coaches we're trying to find a way to win a hockey game, and we make decisions accordingly."
Tortorella made a point of saying the blame for Game 2's loss doesn't lie with any one player. Yet, he also pointed to the Devils' second goal as a key moment in the game.
Gaborik failed to clear the puck from the Rangers' zone and moments later fourth-line center Ryan Carter deflected home a Bryce Salvador shot to tie the game at 2-2 with 1:51 left in the second period.
"I thought the second goal they scored at the end of the period to tie it up was a really big play in that game, and that's not an offensive play, that's a defensive play and we get hurt there," Tortorella said.
Gaborik went more than half the third period before getting his first shift. He played 3:07 later in the third period, but was not on the ice in the final moments with netminder Henrik Lundqvist on the bench for an extra attacker.
The sniper acknowledged to reporters after the game that he has to be better in that situation. He also indicated he wants to be on the ice during those critical situations late in games.
These kinds of decisions are a high-wire act at the best of times. In the playoffs, where every loss is another step toward watching from the sidelines, you can't afford to be wrong.
As a coach, and especially the coach of a team whose work ethic is part of its DNA, making a statement that soft play won't be tolerated has to be balanced against hampering your team's ability to win.
Had Gaborik played more, would the Rangers' chances of tying and winning Game 2 have gone up?
No one can answer that definitively, but a man who scored 41 times during the regular season and has shown flashes of that talent in the postseason, where he has scored four more including a triple-overtime game winner, would seem to be the kind of guy who would enhance your chances of finding a much-needed goal.
The Rangers have not scored more than three goals in any game since their first outing against Ottawa, a stretch of 15 games. And when you've got other weapons that are struggling -- like captain Ryan Callahan, who has just one goal in his last 12 games -- maybe there was a better way to make such a stand.
But if your coaching philosophy is based on consistency and you have consistently shown that players will be treated in a certain manner if they fail to get the job done, then maybe Tortorella had no other option but to do as he did.
When you have a potential game-breaker on the bench in a one-goal game, "that's a pretty clear message," former Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk told ESPN.com Thursday.
Not that any of this is a surprise to Andreychuk, who was the first to hoist the Cup in June 2004 when the Lightning defeated Calgary in seven games.
"We went through that here with Vinny [Lecavalier]. He was hard on him. He demanded a lot of him and I truly believe he got the best out of him," Andreychuk said of Tortorella.
"But it's always truly about the team. He's not going to cover anything up or let things slide. That's what I respected more than anything else about him."
As for Tortorella's running skirmish with the media, Andreychuk said he and St. Louis talked about it while playing golf Thursday. They both believe it is purely an effort by Tortorella to take pressure off the players by creating a distraction.
Andreychuk recalled the war of words between then-Philadelphia Flyers head coach Ken Hitchcock and GM Bob Clarke and Tortorella during the 2004 Eastern Conference finals. The Lightning understood then that this was a way of deflecting attention and giving the team breathing room.
"That's John. That's what he does," Andreychuk said.
Although he wasn't speaking about Gaborik specifically, Tortorella did address the balance between adjusting the Rangers' game plan and simply finding more will to win with Game 3 set for Saturday afternoon in Newark, N.J.
"I think as you're involved in the playoffs and the further you go in it, you're looking for big plays at key times," Tortorella said. "We have found our way. One of the most important ingredients for us to be consistent and to be able to play at this time of the year is really to play as a team and not have any one specific guy be the guy.
"So to answer your question, I think it's not just one person that we're looking to get hot. We're looking for the group of them to continue to play under our team concept, but also someone step up each and every period or each and every game or a key time to make a big play, and I think that's where you find your way."
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