Men who are like New York Rangers coach John Tortorella -- brusque, abrasive, confident to the point of arrogance -- don't often fall into the traps of hope. They don't bite their lower lip and cross their fingers behind their back as they watch wide-eyed and powerless while events unfold. No, men like Tortorella don't rely on hope; they only understand action.
So it had to be heartening for the coach to see the effort that his team put up against Tampa Bay while taking advantage of the lackluster Lightning on the way to a 4-1 home win on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. In the first period alone, the Rangers outshot the Bolts 20-3 and dominated the circles, winning 71 percent of their draws. The game was among the best that New York had put together all season, and the team welcomed winger Rick Nash and defensemen Ryan McDonough and Michael Del Zotto back from injury. The win broke a four-game skid that had observers questioning the Rangers' effort, their identity and their standing as a league power.
The ink hadn't even dried on the new Collective Bargaining Agreement before New York was crowned as likely to lift the Stanley Cup this summer. Bovada.lv listed the Rangers as 15-2 favorites days before the 2013 season began. Countless publications and websites (SI and SI.com included) predicted they would reach the Cup Final, perhaps even win it all. After all, the Rangers had come off their best postseason run in 15 years, playing a gritty, workmanlike brand of hockey. They had reliable veterans, youngsters with outsized promise, and a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie.
But most of all, the off-season acquisition of prized winger Rick Nash was expected to boost New York's offense. Never mind the fact that the same has been said of every major arrival since Jaromir Jagr (see Drury, Chris; Gomez, Scott; Gaborik, Marian; Richards, Brad.). Nash would be the one to help the Rangers crack the Top 10 in scoring for the first time since 2001. He would be the key. The bar had been set, and set high for New York, where underachievement is as welcome as Times Square traffic.
"It's a huge point in how we handle ourselves with the expectations on us," Tortorella said before the season. "It's tough, the expectations, I hear people talking about what we are, and think we're a shoo-in. This is a tough, tough league to win in, and we need to be ready for all sorts of situations and hopefully we'll handle them."
Well, when Nash went down with an undisclosed injury after a Feb. 17 game against Washington, it presented a situation that the Rangers did not handle very well. Without the big-bodied winger in the lineup, New York went 0-3-1 as the offense sputtered. Captain Ryan Callahan and linemate Taylor Pyatt were the only Rangers forwards to score in that four-game span. And aside from a late third period goal against Winnipeg, Richards and Gaborik were held off the scoresheet during the skid.
Nash's return Thursday was conspicuous from the start. "When you get a guy like that back, everyone wants to bring their level up to where he is," winger Carl Hagelin said. "He's one of the best players in the league. You can see how he brings size and the other team really respects him.... You can hide a bit more when he's out there."
Nash is one of the best one-on-one players in the league. With the puck on his stick, he can look almost unstoppable, as evidenced by a pair of breakaways he essentially created for himself Thursday, not to mention the ungodly 12 shots he had on goal. He mixes game-breaking talent with formidable effort, a combination that needs to seep through the rest of the Rangers' lineup if this team is to succeed as expected.
Stars like Richards and Gaborik have been inconsistent, largely underperforming in relation to their lucrative contracts ($6.67 million and $7.5 million cap hits, respectively). Gaborik, who was stapled to the bench by Tortorella during the third period of a game against Montreal last month, has been demoted to the third line, playing alongside banger Brian Boyle and rookie J.T. Miller. Richards, with just two goals this season, had also been taken off the top line, leading some to suggest that he might even be worth a compliance buyout at season's end.
Earlier this week, when Tortorella discussed the will and effort he sees from captain Callahan, he remarked, "He's a special guy. Other players are more skillful guys and I think [they] can take a lesson from that to add some of that grind and will to their game. It may help a lot of guys on our team to get out of their funk.... It does not always have to be a Ryan Callahan-type player. You can bring that type of stuff into anybody's game, and I think they'll help us if they can take a lesson from it."
Tortorella didn't directly mention Richards or Gaborik or the other Rangers who were seemingly stuck in the doldrums, but as a man of action, the coach doesn't need to say much. And anybody familiar with his press conferences knows, he can use words very sparingly. His actions speak loudest. Now it's up to his players to respond.
Maybe Thursday night at the Garden was when they started.