NEW YORK – Before the game, a humble, respectful John Tortorella addressed the media just outside the visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden for about eight minutes.
It was confirmed with the Vancouver Canucks—it was really Tortorella.
The coach answered every question thoughtfully, showing patience with the media that only appeared in spurts during his four-plus seasons as coach of the New York Rangers. The final question, which was about whether he’d have any exchanges with his former players before or after the game, resulted in the only answer that revealed the fiery, honest Tortorella personality that has made him famous and infamous.
“I am going to coach this game, hopefully kick their ass and get out of here,” Tortorella said.
Little did he know it would be the Rangers doing most of the kicking Saturday afternoon.
Chris Kreider, who was such a frequent resident of Tortorella’s doghouse last season that he had to pay property taxes, recorded his first career hat trick as the Rangers ruined their ex-coach’s homecoming with a 5-2 drubbing in front of an appreciative sellout matinee crowd.
To Tortorella’s credit, he said this game had no added meaning for him; all he wanted was for his inconsistent team to grab two points against another team.
The sentiment was the same on the other side, even if fans showed their added satisfaction by raining down “Tor-tor-ella” chants during the final five minutes.
There was a distinct lack of trust between Tortorella and Kreider last season, as the coach limited the rookie’s minutes before shuttling him to the Connecticut Whale of the AHL. It was part of the growing process and something Kreider, who also had an ankle injury throughout last season, understood.
“I mean, I’d struggle trusting me too,” said the soft-spoken Kreider. “I was playing through an injury. I have no hard feelings. I learned a lot from him. It was a positive experience as a whole.
“At the end of the day, it was two points and we came away with a win.”
Kreider burst onto the scene during the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, joining the Rangers despite not having played a single regular-season game. He scored five goals in 18 games as the Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1997.
He entered the following season as a favorite for the Calder Trophy—something he is still eligible for this season despite being in the third and final year of his entry-level contract—and did not meet expectations. Kreider failed to grasp the defensive side of the game and found himself glued to the bench as Tortorella leaned on veterans in crunch time or receiving paltry minutes on a fourth line.
It reached the point where Kreider wasn’t just a liability on defense—he wasn’t contributing offensively, either. He had just two goals in 23 regular-season games last year as he honed his craft mostly in the AHL.
For Kreider, it wasn’t a confidence issue—it was a learning issue.
“My confidence didn’t take a hit; my ankle took a hit,” Kreider said. “I learned very quickly it’s hard to play through an injury. It was a really good learning experience.
|NHL Rookie Scoring Leaders|
|Tomas Hertl, SJS||13||8||21|
|Chris Kreider, NYR||6||10||16|
|Sean Monahan, CGY||9||6||15|
|Torey Krug, BOS||7||8||15|
|Nathan MacKinnon, COL||4||11||15|
“I think I learned a lot. I think I learned a lot of the smaller nuances and the little things that you need to do to help your team win. And hopefully I was able to do those, even today. But yeah, I think I learned a lot little things.”
Tortorella said Saturday morning that one of the things he loves about coaching is the teaching aspect, something that came to the forefront as he took over a young Rangers team at the end of the 2008-09 season. He molded the soft Rangers into granite and guided them to three postseason trips in his four full seasons.
His teaching came back to haunt him Saturday, as the ever-evolving Kreider delivered his best game in the NHL.
In Vancouver, Tortorella said he doesn’t need to do as much teaching with a veteran-laden roster. He is still trying to instill the same toughness into the Canucks that he did with the Rangers, preaching the shot-blocking and grinding mentality that has been absent in Vancouver for years.
Tortorella is still trying to teach; he’s just trying to do it in a different way.
“The teaching part of it, the personalities, the players as you go to different teams, that’s the coolest part of the game for me,” Tortorella said. “It’s all part of the relationships you build as you go through it. Sometimes it’s in conflict, sometimes it’s in feeling good about yourselves. That’s a big part of it. I’m enjoying it. We have a good group.
“I have a deep philosophy as far as how you go about your business as a coach. I have made adjustments in how I go about some business because I have some older guys on this team and a good leadership group. The way we want to play, really, no. I believe in how we go about our business as s coaching staff and trying to stay with it.”
Tortorella's teachings may have helped Kreider, but his identity as a take-no-nonsense coach is starting to show in the Canucks.
Maybe Tortorella can take solace in the fact his team won the shot-blocking battle 16-13 or that Kevin Bieksa and Tom Sestito dropped the gloves late in the third period when the game had long since been decided.
While the Rangers dazzled with speed and talent, the Canucks were reduced to gooning it up in a game in which they were thoroughly outplayed.
Bieksa fought Brian Boyle at the final horn as Tortorella stood on the bench and watched from afar. After Bieksa roughed up Boyle pretty good, Bieksa picked up Boyle’s helmet and kicked it out to center ice.
Tortorella got his pregame wish after all. The Canucks were able to kick something of the Rangers'.