NEW YORK — The difference between watching the 2013-14 New York Rangers and incarnations of Rangers teams coached by John Tortorella the previous four seasons is the difference between watching a bulletproof vest absorb bullet after bullet in the hopes one will ricochet back at the man with a gun and watching John Rambo mow down dozens of Vietnamese soldiers who are holding American POWs hostage.
Alain Vigneault's style is far more pleasing to the senses, be it of hockey fans or the players asked to play in the aggressive system that calls for five-man groups to exert pressure and take the game to the opponent.
It took a couple of months for Vigneault to deprogram a team that was wired to grind below the goal line and along the walls and throw any and all body parts in front of oncoming shots, but the Rangers went 29-13-4 in their final 46 games to secure a playoff berth.
Tortorella demanded all his players be excellent defensively to a fault; the Rangers were one of the most timid teams in the NHL and consistently found themselves relying on Henrik Lundqvist to win low-scoring games in which goals were almost always generated off the counter-attack or strong cycling play in the offensive zone.
Defensemen rarely had the green light to join the rush under Tortorella, and creativity was hard to find in most part because it wasn't encouraged, not because the Rangers lacked creative players.
As the Rangers' talent blossomed and grew, Tortorella refused to grow with and adapt to it, and it eventually cost him his job last summer.
The sight of defensemen Dan Girardi scoring off a redirection near the side of the net and Ryan McDonagh tapping in a game-winning rebound goal in the same game against the Phoenix Coyotes was jarring to the eyes after so many years of Rangers blueliners hanging back, protecting and playing it safe.
"Yeah, a little different," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "A little different as far as creating. As a team, we do it smart. We do it smart when we do it. In the playoffs especially, you can’t give up those kind of opportunities."
Tortorella was a taskmaster who ran his course in New York and was the right coach at the right time for the Rangers, but Vigneault is clearly the right coach for now.
Vigneault took the shackles off a talented team that still has a handful of players who reached the conference finals in 2012 and the conference semifinals in 2013, and it has paid dividends. The Rangers are actually a much better possession team now (plus-6.1 Fenwick differential, 5-on-5 score close) than they were in 2011-12 (minus-0.3 FD) under Tortorella, despite finishing with 13 fewer points in the standings.
|Tortorella vs. Vigneault, 2011-12 vs. 2013-14|
|Season||Coach||Goals per game||Goals against per game||Fenwick %|
Tortorella's firing surprised many, considering how far he brought the team after taking over late in the 2008-09 season from Tom Renney. But for the Rangers to accomplish what they have so far this season, it was a necessity, as Tortorella took the Rangers as far as he could.
The Rangers would not be where there are right now—leading the Philadelphia Flyers 1-0 in their best-of-seven first-round series that resumes Sunday afternoon—with Tortorella still behind the bench.
But there's a flip side to that, too—the Rangers would not be where they are right now without having four years of Tortorella schooling a young, inexperienced team on how to become a mentally tough, resilient team that consistently gives 60 minutes worth of effort on a nightly basis.
"The confidence in knowing what we need to do to win games," Staal said of what Tortorella instilled into the team that can be still be seen today under a new coaching regime.
"It’s hard to put a timeline on when it started, but I think guys just knew their roles, knew what we have to do each night to win a game, and we’ve done that more consistently throughout it, whether we’re down, up, whatever.
"I think for the most part, we’ve played the same in finding a way to win games and we’ve done that consistently throughout the regular season."
Only four players remain from Tortorella's first full season with the Rangers in 2009-10—Brian Boyle, Dan Girardi, Henrik Lundqvist and Staal. That team missed the playoffs by losing in a shootout to the Flyers in their final game of the season, but the 2010-11 team that squeezed into the postseason included three key additions who remain today—Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh.
A five-game loss to the Washington Capitals served as a springboard to the conference finals in 2012, with Brad Richards, Carl Hagelin and Anton Stralman added to the mix.
That's eight players who learned what it took to win in the postseason under Tortorella who remain today, with Richards already learning at the University of Tortorella when they were together with Tampa Bay.
"We went to the conference final a couple years ago and we have a lot of different guys in the room," Staal said. "But we have guys who have been here for a while. I think, even just getting to that point, the amount of work and dedication and driving you to win those rounds.
"That part of it. We didn’t even get to the dance and it was tough. Every round that gets harder and harder, and that’s something that now having gone through a little bit of it, you learn expect that now."
The biggest change that comes with being a team that dominates possession is there is less of a need to block shots, the bread and butter of Tortorella's system and a badge of honor—one of Tortorella's more famous quotes he said on several occasions was Girardi had "balls as big as the building" due to his willingness to serve as a human shield for his goaltenders.
In 2011-12, the Rangers were fourth in the NHL with 1,338 blocked shots; in the 48-game 2013 campaign, the Rangers finished sixth with 773.
This season, under Vigneault, the Rangers fell to 21st in the league in blocked shots with 1,119. Staal's blocked shot numbers fell from 109 in 77 games in 2010-11 (his last full season under Tortorella) to 84 in 72 games this season.
It's a slight drop that represents the difference between playing for a team that values being the aggressor and playing for a team that spends most games having its players pile in front of the goaltender to block shots.
"Yeah, that’s a big difference," Staal said. "On the penalty kill, you’re going to have to do it and when the situations are there to block shots, you do it. But the systems are a little bit diferent to where now there’s a lot more pressure, you don’t give them time to shoot.
Obviously, we like that better. You can be more aggressive and get on them quicker without them having take shots. That’s how you want to do it."
The ghost of Tortorella was on display in the Rangers' Game 1 win vs. the Flyers on Thursday night. Staal blocked a game-high four shots, including three from Wayne Simmonds, Scott Hartnell and Jakub Voracek in 19 seconds early in the third period with the Flyers looking for a go-ahead goal on a power play.
Staal said the blast by Simmonds caught him in a, well, a not-so-pleasant place, but he gathered himself and blocked another shot from Hartnell seconds later.
It's that mentality mixed with Vigneault's free-wheeling offensive style that has the Rangers looking like a real contender to emerge from the Eastern Conference and play for their first Stanley Cup since 1994.
"That effort, that consistency, with AV it’s the same thing," Staal said. "Cancel out the first month of the season, we’ve been very good. With Torts, it was that same thing. What it was before he got here, we didn’t have that type of identity of getting through a 60-minute game like we do now."
Tortorella may be gone, but there are enough flashes of the toughness and work ethic he ingrained into the Rangers during his four-plus seasons as coach that prevent him from being completely forgotten.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.