NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — John Tortorella stared into a packed interview room on the eve of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
With several cameras in his face and a swarm of reporters another row back, the fiery coach of the Rangers impatiently awaited the first question.
Awkward silence followed until he broke it.
“Five, four, three,” he counted down.
It was met with laughter, but Tortorella didn’t join in. It is hardly a stretch to think that if nothing was asked before he reached zero, he would’ve marched out the door as quickly as he entered. But questions did ensue. Some elicited short answers, others got more expansive ones. When asked if he had a favorite part of the playoffs, the response was simple.
“No,” he said tersely. “My least favorite thing is right here.”
That, too, was greeted with laughter. Again, he didn’t crack a smile.
“It’s not supposed to be funny. This is my least favorite thing,” Tortorella said.
So it goes with perhaps the most intense coach in the NHL, or in sports overall. Tortorella isn’t there to entertain, and he doesn’t care if his abrasive style is met with disdain by reporters, players or the opposition.
He has already been a Stanley Cup winner with the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning, and he is shooting for another title with the Rangers. The top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, New York will open the playoffs at home Thursday night against the Ottawa Senators.
Tortorella has several YouTube montages dedicated to him and his often explosive interactions with media members, or spirited reactions on the bench. He has been fined twice this season.
The first was $10,000 for suggesting the NHL and television partner NBC colluded to try to get the Winter Classic into overtime when a penalty shot was called in the closing seconds when the Rangers led the Philadelphia Flyers by a goal. The second was a $20,000 hit last week after a loss at Pittsburgh in which he unleashed a profanity-laced tirade that took shots at the Penguins and stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
That one was sparked by a knee-to-knee hit by Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik on forward Derek Stepan, a shot Tortorella called cheap and dirty.
“He is willing to put himself out there to stick up for us,” Rangers forward Mike Rupp said Wednesday. “He doesn’t want his players to be disrespected, and he will stand against that. He is very good at just trying to protect us as best he can. It’s just one of those things that make you want to play for him.”
Tortorella’s style is simple, and not for the faint of heart.
To call him demanding would be an understatement, but he gets results. Before this season, the Rangers hadn’t finished first in the East since their Stanley Cup win in 1994. Tortorella insists on a defense-first mentality that stresses blocking shots and being responsible in your own end.
The Rangers have bought in.
“He’s not the only coach that’s ever won, but if you do have him you know you’re going to be held accountable,” said forward Brad Richards, a member of Tortorella’s championship team in Tampa Bay who signed with the Rangers last summer. “Accountability is a word that probably gets used too much in this league, but it definitely is used with purpose here. Everybody is on the same page, no favors, and you just buy in quick.
“You’re going to play within the team concept, and if you don’t, you just don’t play. If you’re not playing, you know why.”
In the playoffs, the small details become magnified. Goals are often scarce, and the simplest mistakes can be the difference between advancing or an early start to summer.
New York has struggled to get into the playoffs in recent years, but now the Rangers are on top, and anything short of a deep run will be met with disappointment.
“I think as a whole we’re pretty happy with our club. We’re confident in what can do, obviously,” forward Brian Boyle told WFAN’s Boomer & Carton this week. “The way we play and the physicality we bring I think is built for playoff hockey.”
Listen: Boyle with Boomer & Carton
Tortorella is often perceived as angry and a loose cannon who could explode at any moment. He has provided plenty of evidence to further that impression, including earning a one-game suspension during the 2009 playoffs for squirting water and tossing a water bottle into the crowd at Washington.
But his players say he is much more than that. A glimpse of his softer side was shown during the HBO’s “24/7” series leading up to the Winter Classic, and that is merely scratching the surface.
“Torts is Torts,” backup goalie Martin Biron said. “His intensity, his focus, his commitment and all of that is there and everybody sees that. He is very honest and a very approachable person. His door is always open. He will be intense, but in his intensity he will be just and right. If he has praise for guys, he will give you praise.
“You trust him to give you the right direction and see how it works. It pays off and then everybody buys into it and you get a season where everybody is helping the team and the team is having success. He jokes around with my son all the time. Nobody really gets to see that part. We get to see it on an everyday basis. So when you see his intensity, and when he gets angry or whatever, you know that it’s for a reason.”
The Senators pose a threat with their speed and skilled forwards. They can quickly turn offense into defense, so playing smart will be as important as playing well for New York.
“A system is not going to work unless everybody is a part of it and doing it,” captain Ryan Callahan said. “So far this year everybody has accepted that role of blocking shots, taking the body, that defense-first mentality. We have had success with it.”
Not so much against the Senators.
The Rangers dropped three of four (1-2-1) to Ottawa during the regular season, but they spoke with confidence that those games won’t have any bearing on the best-of-seven series.
“We’re not focusing on it. We know what we can do,” Callahan said. “They beat us in the regular-season series, but it’s all square now and it’s playoff time.”
And that means Twitter silence. One by one, Rangers players signed off on Tuesday for the duration of the playoffs. No one would say where the edict came from, and Tortorella remained mum when asked if he issued the directive.
Regardless, it’s just one more way the Rangers are providing a united front.
“All the success that is going to come from this team is going to come from the tight-knit family and the way we stick together and the way we move all at once in the right direction,” Biron said. “He is a part of that. Obviously, he is our leader, he is the guy in charge of many important decisions.”
In addition to the Senators’ offense, the Rangers will also have to figure out a way to solve goalie Craig Anderson. He has made six starts at Madison Square Garden and is 6-0 with a 1.13 goals-against average and two shutouts.
New York generally has an edge with goalie Henrik Lundqvist, but Anderson could negate that.
“You’re on the biggest stage in America, maybe even the world,” Anderson told The Canadian Press. “It’s Madison Square Garden, it’s New York, it’s where you want to be.
“That’s one thing I can feed off and maybe something the team can feed off knowing we’ve had success in that building.”
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