And so, with his New York Rangers having lost Game 4 to the New Jersey Devils, leaving this best-of-seven Eastern Conference final tied at two games apiece with momentum clearly on the side of the Devils after such a decisive 4-1 victory, the greatest mind the game has ever known is asked what on earth a coach can do to get his players going again.
John Tortorella pauses to the racket of reporters’ jaws bouncing off their hand-held recorders.
“I don’t know what else to tell you,” he continues. “We’re going to keep on trying to play, pray, and hopefully something happens to them.”
This self-made man – who, as the saying goes, must worship his creator – did not say which God or gods the prayers would be sent to, but he did strap on his own skates, grab some gloves and a stick and watch as his assistants put the Rangers through a good workout.
They practised drills emphasizing speed, which was rather lacking in Game 4 as the speedy Devils made theirs count for so much more. They had drills for puck possession, for as Tortorella keeps saying, in the games the Rangers have lost the Devils have had the puck far, far more than they have.
This series, not particularly interesting on the ice, takes its interest these days from the two coaches – Tortorella for the Rangers, Peter DeBoer for the Devils. Bad cop, good cop: the usual two divergent styles in NHL hockey. Readers uncertain as to which is which are encouraged to find another game to watch.
The two teams have despised each other since the Devils took up residence just across the Hudson River from the Rangers in 1982. The Devils had been horribly unsuccessful as the Kansas City Scouts and the Colorado Rockies while the Rangers have been a financial gold mine since founded in 1926. The Devils were once dismissed as a “Mickey Mouse operation” by no less than Wayne Gretzky and the club still drowns in red ink – but the Devils have won three Stanley Cups since they arrived, the Rangers have won only once since the Devils became their next-door neighbour.
“Hatred” is a word the players all use when talking of the opposition. The Devils even joke about how new players are “taught” how to hate the Rangers as much as they are taught to backcheck. It is part of the culture and, Monday night at the Prudential Center, it all boiled over, first on the ice when the Rangers’ Mike Rupp tried to sucker punch New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur, and then, dramatically and comically, between the two benches as DeBoer, usually so calm and controlled, totally lost his cool and seemed about to leap into the Rangers’ bench and use a skate grinder to wipe off Tortorella’s constant sneer.
DeBoer says it is not about the coaches but, of course, it is, too. The success of the Rangers over the regular season and now into the third round of the playoffs is directly tied to how Tortorella has convinced his players to buy into a system that is so much about shot-blocking and collapsing into the net that the Rangers look like a muskox pack under attack when the other teams have power plays. It’s ugly, boring, but it works.
As for DeBoer, he could not have looked smarter than he did Monday night when he went back to a line that predated his arrival as head coach, reuniting frustrated team captain Zach Parise with Dainius Zubrus and Travis Zajac. DeBoer made other lineup changes as well, but the Parise-Zajac-Zubrus combination turned electric, with Parise scoring twice as he broke out of a long playoff slump.
DeBoer blamed himself for Parise’s poor efforts earlier in the series. That it took so long, he said, was “probably on me, because I didn’t find the right mix for him as early as I probably should have.”
If the Devils were to go on and reach the Stanley Cup final, that small lineup tweak will be considered the turning point, despite DeBoer’s reluctance to take credit for it.
Hockey head coaches, with their multiple assistants, myriad of video breakdowns, detailed scouring reports and control over ice time, can have a tremendous effect on the game. Some would say too much. “It’s a great game,” former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn likes to say, “but coaches find a way to stop it.”
Tortorella, who has already proved he can stop the game to the point of revulsion, now has to move in the opposite direction. He has to find a way to start it. There is talent on the Rangers that can be unleashed, if he sees fit to do so.
“The important thing is,” he said after Tuesday’s practice, “we just have to have the puck more.”
Have it more, and use it more.
And pray, of course, that it gets where it needs to go.