NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers were playing a cute little game of three-on-three, red shirts on one side, blue shirts on the other, the goalies and their nets stationed on the Garden's blue lines while John Tortorella watched quietly from the boards.
On the eve of their potential demise, the Rangers were not running suicide drills in skates or blocking shots with their teeth or doing much of anything that would qualify as punishment for losing Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals to the New Jersey Devils. Tortorella was letting his boys be boys. He was allowing his Rangers to have some animated, honest-to-God fun.
No, Vince Lombardi probably wouldn't have approved, and no, the scene didn't jibe with the notion of Tortorella as a draconian ruler, a man who uses confrontation as his preferred method of communication. But when it comes to preparing for sudden-death games, and 3-2 series deficits, the coach has earned the benefit of the doubt.
Tortorella won the 2004 Stanley Cup for Tampa Bay after being down 3-2 to Calgary, and he met the same challenge in this year's first-round series with Ottawa. Truth is, Tortorella probably felt more pressure against the Senators than he felt against the Flames eight years back. You never, ever want to be the coach of a top seed that goes one-and-done in New York.
Let's face it: Winning a championship in the big city isn't quite like winning one in Tampa. There's a reason Mike Keenan and Red Holzman remain the only coaches to win titles for the Garden's teams over the past 70 years.
To join that select group, Tortorella has no choice but to push the right human buttons with his team one more time in Newark. Nobody in the coaching business lasts forever, especially guys wired like Torts, so this might be the last chance he gets with the Rangers to win the big one.
"As we approach our game," Tortorella said Thursday at the Garden, "I'm very comfortable in where we're going to go."
He doesn't have a Mark Messier on his roster to guarantee anything against the Devils, and the 2012 Rangers aren't the 1994 Rangers. Today's captain is Ryan Callahan, and he was more likely to complain that Pete DeBoer should have been a Jack Adams Award finalist than he was to promise a triumph over DeBoer's team.
"No," Callahan said in a near whisper when asked whether anyone had suggested he pull a Messier on the Devils. "Nothing of that nature."
On cue, Tortorella acted as if the 1994 Eastern Conference finals had never happened. In fact, he acted as if 1994 -- the year that gave us the O.J. chase, NAFTA and Tonya Harding -- had never happened, either. When reminded about Messier's magic, Tortorella recoiled and said, "Oh crap," before dismissing the classic series as an irrelevant footnote to his team.
The coach did make one guarantee of his own, this one related to his goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, who didn't exactly bathe himself in glory in Game 5. "He'll play his best game tomorrow night," Tortorella swore.
Of course, the Rangers have no shot at forcing a Game 7 on home ice unless Lundqvist is Lundqvist, and not the impostor who slipped past Garden security Wednesday night. Just as Mike Richter outplayed a 22-year-old Martin Brodeur then, Lundqvist has to outplay a 40-year-old Martin Brodeur now.
But as much as the Rangers are about their goalie, Tortorella represents their dominant personality and will. They play the way he coaches -- with a grinding intensity designed to cover their flaws. Even to the untrained hockey eye, it's clear the Rangers (outside of Lundqvist) don't constitute an overly talented team. So the fact they overcame a lack of offensive firepower to finish with 109 points is a tribute to the man who shaped them.
Brodeur all but confirmed it himself. "We were not supposed to compete with them at all in '94," he said of the Rangers. "They made these trades and they had all these big guys at the end, and they pulled it off in a dramatic way. But this time around, we feel we can play with them. It makes me feel a lot more comfortable going into these games coming up."
It was the goalie's Devilish way of saying he doesn't think these Rangers are all that good, meaning Tortorella deserves the Jack Adams Award, or something, for driving his team to the top of the East.
Only nobody gets a parade for being a No. 1 seed. Tortorella's message to his team Thursday, according to Brad Richards, was short and fairly sweet. "Just that we have this opportunity to win one game to have a chance to win the Stanley Cup, and that's it," Richards said. "It was, 'If we win one game, we're coming back for another Game 7. It's a great experience, so just try to look at everything, as not many people get to do this stuff. Look at it as a great opportunity.'"
In a different life in Tampa, Tortorella, Richards and Ruslan Fedotenko seized upon the opportunity that was a 3-2 deficit in the championship round. "We had to go to Calgary for Game 6," Richards said of the '04 Cup finals, "and the biggest thing [Tortorella] kept talking about was the schedule in front of us and how we talked like we were coming back to play Game 7.
"No one ever mentioned any what-ifs, and obviously we still had to go do it. But we just talked about Game 7 like it was already going to happen. ... [Tortorella] always has his finger on the pulse of his team, and the biggest thing with him always is in your mind, and how you think, and that if you let yourself think about [negative] things, sometimes that will happen."
Richards scored two goals for the Lightning in their double-overtime Game 6 victory, and Fedotenko scored two in Game 7. So their coach then and now was asked to identify his greatest challenge in motivating the Rangers to do the same against the Devils.
"I don't have to motivate the team," he said. "I think our team is motivated. I don't look at it as overcoming a 3-2. We need to win a hockey game. ... So we prepare as we always do. There's no magic. There are no special speakers coming in. There is none of that."
There is only the NHL's winningest American-born coach trying to drag a bone-tired team across the finish line. Fair or not, John Tortorella might never get another shot at greatness in New York. This is his one-timer, and there's no Messier to back him up.