While it’s been quite a while since he left Broadway, New York Rangers fans won’t forget John Tortorella anytime soon. Although he ultimately wore out his welcome, the hard-nosed hockey coach ultimately transformed the Blueshirts into a gritty, tough-to-beat team. The squad has obviously evolved since then, but you could argue that Torts deserves a good chunk of the credit for turning the franchise around.
With that being said, though, he may have also planted the seeds for the (potential) end of the 2021-22 Rangers campaign.
In 2019, Tortorella’s Columbus Blue Jackets swept the Lightning out of the postseason. In the head coach’s mind, that defeat turned Tampa into the juggernaut they are today.
John Tortorella believes that his Blue Jackets taught the Tampa Bay Lightning a valuable lesson
These days, the Tampa Bay Lightning loom large as one of the best teams in the NHL, capable of passing any postseason test. In 2019, however, things were a bit different.
Despite piling up 62 regular-season wins and claiming the Presidents’ Trophy, the top-seeded Lightning were swept by Columbus. It was a result that sent shockwaves through the NHL world. In Tortorella’s mind, it also changed something about Tampa Bay.
“We created a monster,” Tortorella told Joe Smith of The Athletic. “I don’t think it was Xs and Os. I think it was a mindset. … That (2019) Lightning team was all-world when they came into the playoffs, and I don’t think they respected us. Sometimes you’ve got to eat it, and when you eat it, you might still be stubborn and not want to change anything. They ate it and realized they had to change and play a little differently. They changed some personnel. It’s a true credit to their organization that was willing to swallow a little bit and say, ‘You know, we’ve got to change.’”
On the change front, Tortorella believes the Lightning can adapt and cope with the physical challenges of the postseason. He also praised Nikita Kucherov as a player who’s able to absorb punishment without getting too frustrated and losing sight of the ultimate prize.
In the head coach’s mind, all of that combines to give Tampa the edge in their ongoing series with the New York Rangers.
“They can handle themselves in a team game,” Tortorella continued. “I’m impressed with the way Steven Stamkos has spoken in between games and matured. I think they can beat the Rangers. I really do. I know that home ice is very important in these playoffs, but in New York, it’s going to be the champs vs. the kids.”
The New York Rangers are still in the series, but Tampa Bay seems to be returning to their best
On April 16, 2019, the Tampa Bay Lightning fell 7-3 to the Blue Jackets, ending their postseason. Since then, the club has gone a perfect 10-0 in playoff series, winning two Stanley Cups along the way. While it’s unclear how much of that credit goes to Tortorella and his delivery of some humble pie, it’s safe to say that Tampa Bay did turn a corner.
Now, we’re seeing elements of that championship pedigree again. After looking remarkable human in their first two games against the Rangers, the Bolts seem to have returned to their best. They might not have home-ice advantage, but they’ve knotted the series at 2-2, heading back to New York.
While that might seem like an acceptable position for the Blueshirts, there are some warning signs. Tampa has tightened up things in the neutral zone — there’s the adaptability Tortorella talked about — and begun to exert a possession advantage. While winning the shot battle doesn’t automatically equate to wins, it’s never ideal to let a skilled team monopolize the puck. Injuries, particularly those to Ryan Strome, Barclay Goodrow, and Filip Chytil, could also be problematic.
On the opposite bench, the Lightning could also be the beneficiary of some positive injury news. Brayden Point won’t play in Game 5, but the mood around his lower-body injury seems to have brightened. At this point, it’s possible that he’ll dress before the end of the series, giving Tampa even more firepower.
Without getting too reliant on sports cliches, it’s also possible that the experience Tortorella spoke about could come into play. The Lightning have suffered through two Stanley Cup-winning campaigns, paying the price to win the ultimate prize. They’re accustomed to bumps in the road and, in theory, trust their talent. The Rangers, on the other hand, are closer to the beginning of their window. While there’s plenty of experience on the roster in the form of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and the like, their overall squad hasn’t been there, done that like the Bolts have.
To be clear, anything can still happen in the series; that’s the joy of playoff hockey. Should the Tampa Bay Lightning survive and advance, though, it’s possible that they earned the victory with an assist from the New York Rangers’ old bench boss.