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Hartnett: Character, Rather Than Skill, Defines Tortorella’s Resilient Rangers

Adversity Not Getting In New York's Way
John Tortorella (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

John Tortorella (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

Trailing 2-0 in the second period of Game 4, the New York Rangers stared down the prospect of being swept by the Boston Bruins directly in the face. We’ve seen ordinary teams fold it up and pack it in when there’s a mountain to climb.

Not this team, which rallied to earn themselves a sensational 4-3 overtime victory.

The Rangers are very far from being a perfect hockey club – but they’re even further from being branded as a common, run-of-the-mill team. Character, rather than skill, is what defines John Tortorella’s Rangers.

ORDINARY? NOT THESE RANGERS

Most teams would allow their heads to sag under the weight of what appeared to be an impossible task. It also would’ve been understandable for the Rangers to be distracted when respected alternate captain Brad Richards and well-liked veteran winger Arron Asham’s names were suddenly scratched from the lineup. Adversity didn’t get the better of the Rangers during their first-round series against the Washington Capitals, and it’s not getting in their way now.

This team could have chosen to crumble after solidifying defenseman Anton Stralman joined the trio of Marc Staal, Ryane Clowe and Darroll Powe on the growing list of injured players. They didn’t allow themselves to fall apart.

Many things are broken and wrong with the Rangers, yet they’re not letting any of this blur their focus or curtail their desire in any measure. With their backs pressed firmly against the wall, the bold Blueshirts responded with a spirit befitting the pavement-hustling city they represent.

Say what you like about Tortorella and call him whatever you want. Go ahead and pick apart perceived weaknesses in his coaching philosophies. Feel free to detest the man for his rough-around-the-edges personality that results in him cursing on the bench, challenging the media or exploding in any number of ways. It doesn’t matter whether Tortorella is perceived as a bully or a tyrant. He’ll keep doing things his way – and it works.

TORTORELLA MAKES BRAVE CALL BY SCRATCHING RICHARDS

Removing Brad Richards from the lineup is a big, big call. Especially if you’re Tortorella. It takes a lot of stones to pull the plug on a player you’ve marched with to hockey’s mountaintop – and that’s precisely what Tortorella did.

“I need to make decisions about what I feel is right for our team to win tonight’s game and that’s why I made that decision,” Tortorella said of scratching Richards.

Despite Richards’ obvious struggles, he remains a highly experienced player who has scored 78 points in 93 career playoff games, lifted the Stanley Cup and won a Conn Smythe Trophy. It pained Tortorella to do this to Richards, a player whom he shares an extremely close relationship and definitive trust.

“This is a Conn Smythe winner, a guy that I’ve grown up with, a guy that I love as a person and a player – but I have to make that decision regarding this,” Tortorella explained. “It’s not about blaming that guy, this is my decision and I made it for the hockey club.”

STEPAN COMES UP BIG IN GAME 4

If there’s one player who stood out more than any other for the Rangers in Game 4, it was Derek Stepan. He made two vital contributions in the third period. If not for Stepan’s goal and assist, the Rangers would be stewing in misery instead of shipping up to Boston.

“Step makes a huge play for us early on. I thought he gave us some life,” Tortorella said of Stepan’s third period goal.

CBS BOSTON: KALMAN: RASK WITH SOMETHING TO PROVE AFTER MENTAL LAPSES

Stepan made a tremendously alert play to even the game early in the third period. He pressured Zdeno Chara behind Boston’s net to steal the puck from the Bruins’ captain and snuck the puck past Tuukka Rask on a skillful wrap-around effort.

“It was a big play by Steps,” alternate captain Dan Girardi said. “He’s a very heady player. He’s good at getting it on our hands and making quick plays. That was a huge goal for us.”

After Tyler Seguin tied the game for Boston, Stepan pulled the trigger on a nifty pass that allowed Brian Boyle to tie the game on the power play with 10 minutes remaining in regulation.

Boyle has been somewhat of an unsung hero for the Rangers this playoffs and one of New York’s most consistent and quietly effective forwards. Girardi seemed to agree with this assessment of Boyle.

“I think so, he’s a big body out there. He does his job well,” Girardi replied. “Winning faceoffs, blocking shots, putting pucks in the net, making big plays – he’s been really big for us.”

OVERTIME HERO KREIDER RIDING HIGH

Chris Kreider’s young career has been full of peaks and valleys. Heading into the season, Kreider was expected to play a major role after his breakthrough performances during the 2012 playoffs a year ago.

Instead, Kreider found himself yo-yoing between the bright lights of New York and minor-league Connecticut throughout 2013. His experiences whether positive or negative have taught him to trust himself and stick to the trademarks that have gotten him to the NHL level.

“A big part about being a professional, that I learned this year is you don’t change your game up. I keep trying to play the same way regardless,” Kreider said after scoring the overtime winner.

There’s something about that playoff spotlight that brings the best out of Kreider. His Game 4 overtime-winning goal could very well breathe a ton of life back into the Rangers.

“I couldn’t be happier for Kreids,” Tortorella said. “He ends up stepping up and making a big play for us.”

Kreider seems to be finding things with more ease of late and Tortorella noticed this and rewarded Kreider with a promotion to the second line. Kreider took full advantage of his opportunity to play alongside Rick Nash and Derick Brassard.

He has a chance to make a big mark on the rest of the series going forward. It’ll be interesting to see how he’ll handle himself under the pressure of Game 5 in Boston.

PRESSURE BACK ON BOSTON?

Obviously, the Rangers are taking things one game at time. If there’s one Ranger who’s beaming confidence, it’s Derick Brassard.

“We’re looking forward to going to Boston. Pressure is on them,” Brassard explained. “Toronto came back from 3-1. It’s possible. We just want to just bring it to a seventh game. Anything can happen.”

CBS BOSTON: ‘NO PANIC’ SAYS JULIEN

The Rangers probably view themselves as a stronger all-around team compared to the Maple Leafs. Of course, they have a goalie between the pipes who can win games on his own in Henrik Lundqvist. In Game 4, Lundqvist recorded 37 saves and crucially held off waves of attacks by the Bruins in the early moments of overtime.

Game 4 proved that the Rangers can rise together as a team.

Like Brassard said, anything can happen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Rangers seem to think they can make things interesting as the series shifts back to TD Garden for Game 5. At the very least, they’ve showed the hockey world they’re not going down without a fight and are prepared to throw everything they have at the Bruins.

“There’s no quit in this room,” overtime hero Kreider said.

You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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