NEW YORK — Henrik Lundqvist recalled the first time he met John Tortorella. It was spring of 2009, and the coach with a Stanley Cup on his resume was taking over behind the bench of the New York Rangers and not messing around.
“I heard a lot of things about Torts, and when he came in and I had the first meeting and talked about certain things, this is the way we’re going to do it. I listened,” Lundqvist said. “I was excited and nervous at the same time.”
The result has been steady improvement every year under Tortorella, culminating with the best record in the Eastern Conference this season. This is much of the same core as years past, but the Rangers are a different team thanks to another season under their fiery coach and honing his tight-checking, defensive style.
“He’s just really good at telling you what you need to do better and what you need to work on if you want to play on this team. That’s all you can really ask for,” Rangers center Brian Boyle said. “He’s really stern the way he does it sometimes, but we’re grown-ups. We’re men. We can figure it out. I respect the way he does it.”
Tortorella’s a man of few words with reporters, but the Jack Adams Award finalist has earned the respect of his players for tough love and his hockey acumen.
“He can challenge you, but I don’t mind that. I like to be challenged sometimes. It was refreshing to have a different style,” Lundqvist said. “You need to [be] challenged as a player. I think you know what to expect. When you get to know him, he’s pretty honest about everything.”
Or perhaps he’s deflecting attention such as in January when owner James Dolan said the Rangers were “pretty close” to winning the Stanley Cup. Tortorella blasted that declaration and insisted the focus is on one game at a time.
To hear a coach decry his own team’s chances to win a championship might be hard for players to hear, but it was another example of what forward Mike Rupp said was Tortorella’s best quality: keeping the Rangers on an even keel.
“The second you think that you’ve accomplished anything, it’s going to be the beginning of your demise,” Rupp said. “We have a really realistic view of what’s going on here.”
The difference this season, along with the addition of free agent center Brad Richards and key contributions from the likes of Marian Gaborik and rookie Carl Hagelin, was Tortorella aiding the maturation of this group.
He has altered his approach as the team has grown up.
“He doesn’t have to be on top of us all the time. He gives us more room now to play. It’s been a great adjustment,” Lundqvist said. “And I think it shows also he trusts the team. It starts with we have to do things the right way from the start, and he doesn’t have to challenge us, as much.”