NEW YORK -- It would barely warrant an entry in the legendary log of exchanges New York head coach John Tortorella has shared with reporters. But Thursday morning, just hours before his Rangers would open the playoffs against the Ottawa Senators as Eastern Conference favorites for the first time since 1994, the oft-irascible coach discussed his team's mindset going in as the Conference's top seed.
"We're not worried about [where we're ranked]," he said. "We're going to worry about trying to play the right way. I thought we prepared the right way. We're going to try to play the first game the right way."
"John, when you say, 'play the game the right way,' how would you define it?" a reporter asked.
"I'm not going to define it. I'm not going to define it for you."
If he wasn't going to verbalize it for the press, he had no trouble expressing it to his team. Midway through the second period, with the Rangers clinging to a one-goal lead as Ottawa began generating more quality chances and pinning New York in its own zone, a couple of Ranger icing calls forced Tortorella to take a timeout, to give his winded players a minute to breathe.
What may have been a routine timeout, he used as an opportunity to refocus his group, to tell them to stop "slapping the puck around." And, from that point forward, the Rangers regained the momentum Ottawa had seized and blew the game open, ultimately defeating the Senators 4-2 at Madison Square Garden Thursday night.
"We just needed to calm ourselves down a little bit," New York defenseman Dan Girardi said. "We were running around a little bit and throwing pucks away. "
When Tortorella took the timeout, with 10:09 left in the second, the shots were 22-12, favoring the Senators. In the following six minutes, New York then put up six unanswered shots on goalie Craig Anderson before finally breaking through with two goals within three minutes to close the second period. The Rangers had nearly evened the shots when winger Marian Gaborik had picked up the puck deep in the corner of the Senators' zone alone. Unchallenged, he walked in on Anderson, stopped a little short, deked and slipped a shot five-hole for his 14th career playoff goal. Two-and-a-half minutes later, with the Rangers still strong on the forecheck, third-line center Brian Boyle sniped a loose puck in the slot over Anderson's right shoulder. With less than a minute left in the period, it was the kind of goal that kicks a reeling team in the gut.
Ottawa, which had built momentum through the first half of the game, found itself on the ropes and paid the price. "The last four, maybe five minutes of the second period ... and early in the third period, if you could take away those six minutes, we are pretty happy with how we played he game," Senators coach Paul MacLean said. "We will build on the 54 minutes we played reasonably well and try to see what we can do to correct the six minutes that we didn't."
Hockey's momentum shifts are inevitable. They are, in the opinion of Tortorella, supremely important in the postseason. So sometimes it is how a team weathers through the ebbs and flows of the game that make the difference.
"Teams are going to get momentum," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "They're going to get some time in your end zone when things aren't going your way. [But] when that happens and you're tired, we try to stick to our defensive zone coverage. All five guys know what's going on and we stick with that. Maybe you don't get the puck back right away, but you're not going to give them glorious chances."
Thursday night, there were a few "glorious chances" for Ottawa, particularly early on in the second, but they were thwarted by Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who finished with 30 saves. "He was really good when they surged on us," Tortorella said. "We settled ourselves down. We didn't get hurt. Our goaltender was really good at that time and then we found a way."
The Senators, on the other hand, were victimized when the Rangers began to control the pace. Brad Richards added a goal 2:15 into the third period, thanks to a heads-up play by rookie Carl Hagelin, who stole the puck from Nick Foligno behind Ottawa's net on the forecheck. This is how Tortorella probably would have defined "the right way," hard and tight defense and a physical and aggressive forecheck that can make a team pay if it's not careful.
Richards' goal extended New York's lead to 4-0. And though the Senators did score a pair of late ones in the third -- courtesy of Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Condra -- ultimately there just wasn't enough time for the them to make up for what was lost in the six minutes they had not played the right way.