The Washington Capitals made two trips to Madison Square Garden early last season, and both were defensive-minded, low-scoring affairs.
That was back when Glen Hanlon coached the Caps and Tom Renney was in charge of the New York Rangers. If Wednesday’s Game 1 - the first matchup between bench bosses Bruce Boudreau and John Tortorella at their current posts - were any indication, this Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup will be different from those contests.
“This series should be a lot of fun to watch,” Rangers forward Ryan Callahan said. “Both teams are pretty offensive, and the Caps certainly have a lot of firepower. I’m sure it makes it good for the fans.”
Boudreau’s effect on the Caps has been well-chronicled. When he replaced Hanlon on Thanksgiving last season, he altered the team’s philosophy. No longer were the young Caps asked to play passively and not make mistakes.
Boudreau wanted a more aggressive approach, and the young players flourished with an offense-first style.
“With the personnel we have, we’re very offensive-minded,” defenseman Shaone Morrisonn said. “We have a lot of skill up front, but I think our focus is still being solid defensively. It might play out that there are a lot of scoring chances, but there are great players out there for both teams.”
The Rangers relieved Renney of his duties in late February and tabbed Tortorella as his successor. A defense-first coach, Renney was known for his calming influence. Tortorella, meanwhile, has a well-earned reputation of being abrasive, both with his players and the media. Some players don’t respond well to that, but others laud him for holding people accountable.
The Rangers, one of the most talented in the league on paper, often looked listless and without identity before Tortorella showed up. Now the man who guided the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2004 has the Rangers offering a more aggressive, offensive-minded effort - similar to how Boudreau transformed the Caps.
“The way we’re playing under our team concept is more instinctive,” Tortorella said. “It was a tough situation for some of the guys, and we changed things. It was a different philosophy. Tom deserves a lot of credit for us being here - he coached a lot of the games. We have a little bit different philosophy.”
Added Callahan, the Rangers’ leading scorer with eight goals and 16 points since the trade deadline in early March: “Yeah, there was [a big change]. We’re playing a different system now. It is more of a straight-ahead type of system and more offensive. That’s been the main change, and we’ve been trying to get in on our forecheck harder and create more chances off of that.”
The Rangers put more pressure on the Caps and took advantage of their team speed. Three of the New York’s four goals came on an offensive rush, and two of those came when the Rangers took advantage of slow line changes by the Caps.
“Their transition game has definitely picked up,” Caps forward David Steckel said. “As soon as they touch it, they are looking to go the other way.”
Added Morrisonn: “Maybe with Renney they used to sit back a little more, but they have great players over there - a lot of skilled guys - and they scored some nice goals. That’s definitely Tortorella’s style. We know that from playing against him in Tampa. They were always very high-tempo, offensive-minded teams.”
The result of these offensive-minded philosophies clashing was an entertaining, end-to-end tilt with lots of scoring chances for the Caps and enough for the Rangers to win 4-3. Given the number of world-class players on these teams and their freedom to be aggressive, should more up-and-down hockey be expected?
“You would think it would be that way because I think you have two teams that want to go,” Tortorella said. “But it’s [like] when you’re thinking about the Super Bowl or the World Series - you think it’s going to be [one] way, but you never know what’s going to happen. I don’t think Washington’s going to change too much. I think they played a pretty good hockey game.”