Commentary

Tortorella's style seems to suit Rangers

Updated: March 27, 2009, 1:27 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- If Tom Renney was that understanding uncle in the worn cardigan with the patches on the elbow, then John Tortorella is the wild-eyed uncle with the ax in that dark house at the end of the lane.

Want to know how wacky hockey is sometimes?

As fine a body of work as Renney produced as coach of the New York Rangers, taking them to three straight playoff appearances and twice advancing to the second round, this Rangers team needed less cardigan and more ax.

[+] EnlargeJohn Tortorella
Graig Abel/Getty ImagesJohn Tortorella took over as Rangers coach on Feb. 23, 2009.

And if you don't think Tortorella is just the man to wield that ax, then you just haven't been paying attention.

Take Tortorella's assessment of Thursday's 5-4 shootout loss to the Atlanta Thrashers, a game the Rangers at one point led comfortably at 4-1.

"Yeah, I thought we sucked, right on through the game. I think we're fortunate enough to get a point. We're very fortunate to get that," Tortorella told reporters just outside the visitors' locker room. "I don't give a [expletive] what the guys talked about. I really don't care what the guys talked about, we sucked."

By our count, his postgame news conference lasted 14 seconds.

But that's classic Tortorella.

Players talk about the jaw-dropping experience of Tortorella's first meetings after taking over for Renney on Feb. 23, his slice 'em-dice 'em approach to running a team.

"One thing about John Tortorella is that it's his way or it's no way," Rangers veteran center Scott Gomez told ESPN.com prior to Thursday's game.

You can imagine players like Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis in Tampa and Brad Richards in Dallas reading these comments and silently nodding their heads in unison.

Been there. Read the book. Won a Cup.

The battles between Tortorella and his young stars in Tampa, both public and private, were legendary. Tortorella imposed his will on those players, and if that meant reduced ice time or benchings or public flayings, then so be it.

Last season, we met with Richards in Dallas after he was dealt there by Tampa Bay at the trade deadline. His voice caught with emotion as he described his final, teary meeting with Tortorella in Tampa. Regardless of whatever had been said during the course of their relationship, Richards told us Tortorella made the Lightning winners. He made them into something they will never forget.

A couple of months later, Tortorella, too, was gone. He hung out with his family, took a gig doing analysis with TSN in Toronto and bided his time.

Tortorella is nothing if uncomplicated. He wanted one thing -- to coach. And he knows only one way to coach -- to win.

He has already made it clear to Sean Avery he will not accept any shenanigans, and Avery has responded with solid play since returning from NHL-imposed purgatory. On Thursday, he crashed the Atlanta net, drawing a goaltender interference call, and later drew a penalty from Atlanta captain Ilya Kovalchuk in the third period that should have led to the Rangers' winning goal had their power play not once again imploded.

"Sean has been very, very effective for us right from the get-go," Tortorella said before the game. He expects Avery's contributions will only increase as the distance between his past and his present increases.

Another newcomer, Nik Antropov, has been identified by Tortorella as a kind of a project, albeit one with a big upside.

"I will always be on him about his level of play [over the course of a 60-minute game]," Tortorella said.

But the 6-foot-6 center who came over from Toronto at the trade deadline also has soft hands and a nose for the net, as he displayed in scoring the Rangers' second goal of the game Thursday, his fifth since joining the Rangers. "He's a really interesting one to me," Tortorella said.

No one is suggesting this New York Rangers team can replicate what Tortorella's 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning squad did, which was win a Stanley Cup. But if there is one major difference, it's that Tortorella had to bend that team to his will. This Rangers team seemed to have been dying for just this kind of hand on the tiller.

"To play for him, you've got to have thick skin," Gomez said.

If you make a mistake, fine, but make it again, and you're going to hear about it on the bench.

"And then you're going to be a highlight on the video the next day," Gomez added. "For a lot of guys here, they'd never had that. He reminds me a lot of Pat Burns."

For those in need of a history lesson, Gomez played for Burns' Devils when they won a Cup in 2003. Veteran defenseman Paul Mara, his eye full of stitches courtesy of a Marty Reasoner high stick, echoed those sentiments.

"I think the atmosphere has changed in the locker room and on the ice. We've gone to an attack team instead of being passive," Mara said.

The defenseman laughed when asked if there was a period of adjustment to Tortorella's style.

"I think you get used to it pretty quickly," Mara said. "You're going to know what you're doing well and what you need to work on. It doesn't take too long."

The Rangers are 8-4-2 since Tortorella took over. Their power play is still struggling (they went 2-for-10 on Thursday night, but still managed to foul up three 5-on-3s), entering the game ranked 29th in the league. At the same time, they remain the top penalty-killing team in the NHL.

More important, New York is a team that no longer looks as though a stiff breeze would blow it over. The Rangers are almost certain to make the playoffs for the fourth straight season, something that couldn't be said about them a month ago.

"You have to accept it because you're not going to get anything else," defenseman Marc Staal said of Tortorella's style. "But he's a positive guy, too, as much as he gets on you. We were on a slippery slope there for a while and he's definitely helped turn the ship around."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.