In Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, the New York Rangers trailed the New Jersey Devils 3-2 for most of the third period, and coach John Tortorella kept Marian Gaborik—the forward who had scored 41 goals and assisted on 35 more during the regular season—off the ice.
Gaborik had struggled in the Rangers' first round series against Ottawa, scoring just one goal in those seven games. But he came alive in Game 3 of the conference semifinals against Washington, ending an eight-game scoring drought by tallying a goal in the third overtime, ending the marathon battle and giving the Rangers a 2-1 advantage in the series.
Gaborik also scored in Game 4 and Game 6 against Washington and showed signs of returning to the potent form he displayed in the regular season.
But Gaborik did not score in Game 1 against the Devils and then made a crucial error in the second period of Game 2 on Wednesday night.
The Rangers led 2-1 late in the second period, but with just under two minutes left, Ryan Carter was able to deflect Bryce Salvador's shot past Henrik Lundqvist to tie the game.
Marian Gaborik was facing Salvador for that shot and did not drop to the ice and attempt to block it, which has become a trademark of the Rangers' gritty defense. Gaborik also had an opportunity to clear the zone just prior to Salvador's shot, but he turned it over.
Soon thereafter, the game was tied.
When asked about why he was benched in the third period, Gaborik told Peter Botte of the NY Daily News:
The second goal, I didn’t get the puck out, I guess, so you’ll have to ask him (coach John Tortorella). It would have been big (to go into the third period up 2-1). I just have to do a better job there on the second goal. We had some momentum and they took over. I have to do a better job on the wall. It’s a series. We just have to come back into their building and play better.
The Rangers had a golden opportunity to go up 2-0 in the series, but Carter's tying goal swung momentum to New Jersey. David Clarkson deflected another goal past Lundqvist less than three minutes into the third period, and the 3-2 lead held up for the Devils.
Now the Rangers have lost home ice advantage and head to the Prudential Center across the Hudson River in Newark with the series tied.
But just because of one mistake, should Tortorella really have shamed Gaborik by refusing to play him at even strength when the Rangers were desperate for a goal to tie it in the third period?
Marian Gaborik is being paid $7.5 million for a reason, and that is to score goals. While the coach clearly sent a message to his team about the importance of sound defense, he may have cut off his nose to spite his face.
Tortorella punished rookie Chris Kreider during the Washington series for some defensive miscues, but in his 34 minutes of ice time against the Devils, Kreider has two goals and an assist.
Maybe the hard-nosed coach needs to take the bad with the good, and let his offensive spark plugs play. There are other ways of coaching besides putting a player in timeout like a child.
When the famously laconic Tortorella was asked during the postgame press conference to explain why he sat Gaborik in the third period, he provided a concise answer: "No."
When it comes to being economical with words, this guy is the Ernest Hemingway of hockey coaches.
There's obviously a method to his madness, but regardless of his reasons for the benching, it clearly didn't work. It didn't fire up his squad and inspire them to scratch out another goal.
Perhaps Gaborik will come out in Game 3 with renewed intensity, and the Rangers will dominate offensively.
But Game 2 is already in the books as a loss, and the Rangers seem to be headed for their third consecutive long, tough, grueling series in these playoffs.
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