By Steve Silverman
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Tortorella is a small town in Italy, with a population of less than 1,000.
Presumably, one or more of Rangers’ head coach John Tortorella’s relatives hails from that town in the province of Salerno in Southern Italy.
I looked that up hoping I would find a different definition for the name. From the look on Tortorella’s face in crucial moments of games, I was hoping Tortorella translated to “tortured soul.” The coach appears to wear the weight of the world on his being, especially when the Rangers are tied or losing in playoff games.
Tortorella’s great strength behind the bench is his ability to motivate his players. When the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in a riveting 7-game series over the Calgary Flames in 2004, it was Tortorella who was credited for raising his team’s level of play throughout the Stanley Cup Finals.
If Tortorella was a motivating force back then, he’s even more of one now. He demands accountability from all of his players and he is not afraid to call a player out by name when he senses a player is giving anything less than his level best.
That type of unflinching leadership allowed the Rangers to survive two 7-game series in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Neither Tortorella nor his players appear to be satisfied as they prepare to face the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals.
This matchup has every chance of turning into another 7-game series. The Devils barely survived their first-round matchup against the Florida Panthers, winning both the 6th and 7th games in overtime before cruising to a shockingly easy 5-game win over the Flyers. Like the Rangers, the Devils depend on hard hitting and defensive responsibility for their success, but New Jersey may not measure up to the Rangers in three key areas.
Start off in goal, where Henrik Lundqvist is the best goalie in the world right now. A year ago, Boston’s Tim Thomas earned that status but Lundqvist took aim and bypassed the Bruins’ netminder. Martin Brodeur is a future Hall of Famer who may rank with Ken Dryden in terms of lifetime accomplishment, but he is not the great goaltender he once was. He is very good and capable of outstanding moments, but over a 7-game series, the Rangers have an edge in that area that may be decisive. Brodeur acknowledged Lundqvist’s outstanding season and the “edge” he gives the Rangers, but don’t think for a moment that Brodeur doesn’t relish the opportunity to challenge the King.
Brad Richards is the kind of leader the Rangers have not had since – dare we say – Mark Messier. When the Rangers made the bold move of signing the league’s most coveted free agent last summer, they were operating under the belief that he would be at his best in key moments. Richards played on Tortorella’s Stanley Cup champion Lightning team, so that belief was based on history and not a gut feeling. Richards scored the key first goal in the 7th game win over the Capitals and there’s every reason to think he is just getting started.
Ilya Kovalchuk leads the Devils in scoring 12 points in the first two series, but his nasty shot does not make him the Devils’ leader. Travis Zajac and Zach Parise are the Devils’ leaders and solid players, but they may have a hard time matching Richards’ ability to make things happen in clutch situations.
The other area where the Rangers seem to have an edge is behind the bench. Tortorella may be a hard task master, but it is not simply a one-way relationship. Tortorella knows that his team is not playing in the 1960s or 1970s, when nobody would question a coach’s authority. His players understand that he is solely motivated by bringing home that championship and that’s the source of his passion. Nothing against Peter DeBoer, but he simply does not have the track record. In three previous seasons, his Florida Panthers’ teams never made the playoffs. He has won his first two series with the Devils, but now he walks into Hell’s Kitchen and will find the most desperate opponent imaginable.
The Devils will be up to the challenge and will fight and claw for seven games. But in the end, Lundqvist, Richards, Tortorella will prevail and the Rangers will go to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy).
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