By Steve Silverman
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They are still playing hockey even though the Rangers were eliminated from the postseason nearly two weeks ago.
There’s an important lesson Glen Sather can learn from watching the team that eliminated them in five games. The Boston Bruins, a team that was considered a near mirror image of the Rangers at the start of their conference semifinal series, has the Pittsburgh Penguins teetering on the brink of getting bounced from the playoffs in a four-game sweep.
The Bruins have been playing an astounding brand of defense, holding the mighty Penguins to two goals in three games.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both have 0-0-0 lines through three games.
The Bruins are not a team of superstars. Zdeno Chara is perhaps the most dominant defenseman in the league and Patrice Bergeron may be the most versatile player around. But Chara is not a Norris Trophy candidate, and Bergeron is usually mentioned for the Selke Award (defensive forward) or the Lady Byng (gentlemanly play), and not the Hart Trophy.
OK, the Bruins have bought into head coach Claude Julien’s defensive system. Not a surprise, since the Bruins won the Stanley Cup playing basically the same way two years ago.
But here’s the shocker from this year’s run. Jaromir Jagr is buying in.
The former Ranger is a future Hall of Famer because of his spectacular offensive production. When he played in Pittsburgh, Washington and New York, Jagr though defense was something his teammates played. Jagr got his rest when the other team had the puck.
Suddenly, startlingly, Jagr is backchecking and playing both ends of the ice at the age of 41. In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, Jagr picked Malkin’s pocket in the second overtime, got the puck to Brad Marchand, who set up Bergeron for the game-winning goal in double overtime.
Julien explained that Jagr has bought in to a system that’s been completely foreign to him. “He’s played a certain way his whole career, and now he sees a team that plays a certain way, and he’s bought into it and gets rewarded the last couple of games with some pretty important shifts,” Julien told the Boston Globe.
Julien is every bit as defensive-minded as John Tortorella ever was. However, he doesn’t demand that all his players block shots at every opportunity and browbeat them if they don’t.
It’s not necessarily wrong for the Rangers to seek out a coach who has a strong defensive system in mind. But Tortorella’s tortured approach never works. Not any more. The head coach as disciplinarian and dictator died 20 years ago, but it never occurred to Tortorella to change his ways.
When the Rangers slumped, it was time to blame the biggest offensive names for not backchecking.
First it was Marian Gaborik who was in the cross-hairs, and then after he was moved to Columbus, Brad Richards was next on the firing line.
Richards, you’ll remember, did not play in the final two games against the Bruins when his production waned.
If Tortorella had stayed, one would have expected the Rangers to possibly buy out Richards. Then, in training camp, Rick Nash probably would have been the next player to draw the coach’s ire.
The Rangers’ next coach doesn’t have to eschew defense, but he must allow offensive players to thrive.
The idea of naming Mark Messier that coach is exciting, but it would still take a huge leap of faith by Sather to put him behind the bench. Messier has never coached in the NHL or American Hockey League.
That doesn’t mean it would be wrong and he would bring offensive know-how. But whether it’s Messier or not, the Rangers have to find a coach with a system that everyone will buy into, like Julien has done in Boston.
It’s not about a coach forcing a style of play down his players’ throats. Those days are over.
That’s the lesson of Tortorella’s painful regime.
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