Brian Cashman is a New Jersey Devils fan and a New York Yankees executive who has enough problems with Carlos Beltran's elbow and Mark Teixeira's wrist to spend a few hours in front of a TV set watching the one hockey team -- not his -- that has taken the metropolitan area by the throat.
But through highlights and quick Internet reads and quicker remote switches to the Stanley Cup playoffs in between innings, Cashman knows that the New York Rangers represent one hell of a story, and that their coach just proved he was no more fearful of making a bold postseason move in his first year in New York than Joe Torre was in 1996, when the manager benched Wade Boggs, Paul O'Neill, and Tino Martinez -- who would combine for 7,040 big-league hits -- for Game 3 of the World Series.
When Alain Vigneault pulled Henrik Lundqvist in the middle of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals Tuesday night, pulled him because the Montreal Canadiens had built a 4-1 lead on a surreal night moving at video-game speed, the Rangers' coach made the same declaration Torre made in a World Series his team would win in six after losing the first two:
A player's coach doesn't need to care more about soothing a player's ego than he does about winning a title.
"Joe didn't want to make that call, but he wasn't afraid to make it when the situation forced him to," Cashman said Wednesday. "With [Vigneault], he's clearly not afraid to do it his way. If he wasn't man enough to make tough decisions that will be dissected inside and out, and live with the results, the Rangers wouldn't be in position to get to the Stanley Cup finals."
Vigneault said he made the decision to sit arguably the world's best goalie -- he also yanked him during the first-round series with the Philadelphia Flyers -- because he was desperate to wake up his team. It worked (the Rangers came back to tie the score), at least until it didn't (the Canadiens answered against Cam Talbot with three more goals of their own).
Now the Rangers have to confront a few demons and doubts they didn't care to face. They just made Pittsburgh forever regret its failure to close out a 3-1 series advantage in the conference semis, and suddenly the Canadiens are feeling better than Lundqvist, who was reduced to making the dreaded skate of shame in the Bell Centre and who compelled Rene Bourque to follow up his hat trick with this slap shot: The winger wondered aloud if Montreal novice Dustin Tokarski is actually the best goalie in this series.
Vigneault didn't consider reinserting Lundqvist after the Rangers made it a game and, outside of a reassuring pat on the back, didn't see the need for a post-defeat pep talk, either.
"I think you guys all see how competitive he is," Brad Richards told reporters of his goalie, "and [the benching's] not going to sit well. ... We always know he's going to regroup."
Stars who are embarrassed on the postseason stage regroup and respond in different ways. In 1996, Martinez took his demotion the hardest -- he slammed the door to Torre's office on exit -- and finished that World Series with one hit in 11 at-bats. Boggs drew a 10th-inning, bases-loaded walk to win Game 4, and O'Neill made the two-out, ninth-inning catch that saved Game 5. Torre would claim his first of four championships with the Yankees. In July he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Nobody knows for sure how Lundqvist will respond in Thursday night's Game 6 in the Garden, or where his coach will take his career from here. But there are at least a handful of parallels to be drawn from Vigneault's first year in New York to Torre's.
Both men arrived as scarred 50-somethings who were fired more than once, who were replacing successful coaches, and who were not exactly greeted with ticker-tape parades (Clueless Joe, meet Vapid Vigneault?). Both supplanted tense micro-managers (though John Tortorella was Buck Showalter on a heavy dose of steroids) inside franchises that hadn't won a championship in a long time (Yankees 18 years, Rangers 20). Both won over their teams with a human touch, by remaining relatively calm in stormy times, and by trusting veterans to police their locker rooms.
Both also managed the delicate merging of tragedy and triumph. Torre had one brother die of a heart attack during the regular season, and another end up locked in a life-or-death drama while waiting for a heart transplant during the postseason; Vigneault has allowed his team to respectfully rally around its hottest player, Martin St. Louis, who lost his mother to a heart attack during the Pittsburgh series.
"And you can see the way the Rangers are getting after it on the ice," Cashman said, "with [Derek Stepan] coming back with his broken jaw in a cage, they're putting it all on the line for the team. It represents an individual commitment to each other, as well as the culture created by their coach."
A coach who, by all accounts, has reached Tortorella's former players with an approach Torts would've found harder to understand than the Greek alphabet. It's the kind of approach Torre used in '96, even when the Yankees' divisional lead was cut from 12 games to two and a half.
"When we almost fell apart late in the season, Joe remained a calm, cool and collected guy," Cashman said. "Buck Showalter was a great manager, but I had a conversation with Paul O'Neill where Paul said that in '93, '94, and '95, when the stakes got higher you could feel it in the dugout. With Joe, his demeanor allowed players to dial it down rather than getting caught up in the moment."
Can Alain Vigneault's Rangers dial it down while also playing with win-or-else urgency in Game 6? Even as a Devils fan, and even as a friend of the Canucks GM (Mike Gillis) who fired Vigneault, Cashman is better qualified than most to answer. In his time as general manager and assistant GM, the Yankees have played 166 postseason games in 34 series and have won five titles in seven World Series appearances. They've lost a 3-0 lead to Boston in a best-of-seven, and a 2-0 lead to Seattle in a best-of-five. In other words, the GM has seen it all.
"It's probably a very stressful time for the Rangers," Cashman said, "but they've got to focus on the fact that being up 3-2 is the position you want to be in. When a team like Montreal has nothing to lose in a series the public and the fans already believed was over, you have to match that level on the other end. It's a hard thing to create, but I think Vigneault already showed he's coaching like there's no tomorrow by pulling his goalie. And that's a good thing."
Over the phone Wednesday, Cashman started reading from the Bill Walsh book, "Finding the Winning Edge," in which the hall of fame coach revisited his decision to bench Joe Montana in favor of Steve Young in a January 1988 playoff loss to Minnesota. Montana had already won two of his four Super Bowls, and yet Walsh wasn't afraid to sacrifice him in the middle of his prime to give his team a jolt.
Alain Vigneault isn't Bill Walsh or Joe Torre, not yet, anyway. But he's shown the nerve of a potential champ by twice pulling his own franchise player, Lundqvist, in these playoffs.
If it means giving the Rangers a better chance at winning the Cup for the first time since 1994, you bet he'll go for the hat trick.