The New York Rangers are floundering on the fringe of the playoff picture. The shortened season has thrown a wrench into the team supposedly on the verge of a Stanley Cup run. Expectations have never been higher, and the team continues to disappoint. Brad Richards seems to have lost his game. Rick Nash is not living up to his billing. Chris Kreider is not turning out to be the sensation he appeared to be in his first few games as a Ranger.
Worst of all, the patented John Tortorella system, a defense-first strategy that led the Rangers to the top of the conference and to 10 playoff wins the prior season, is not being executed the way it should. Instead of wearing down opponents in the offensive zone, the Blueshirts find themselves trapped in their own end, unable to break out, unable to get the puck deep, unable to sustain offensive opportunity.
What went wrong is impossible to pinpoint. In hockey, every game, every season, has its ebbs and flows. The Rangers were ebbing, but they had the personnel, the talent, the system, and the coaching to be a contender for a few years down the road. Regardless of the result of this season, it could be explained away, disqualified as an unfair representation of what this team could and would accomplish. Lockouts, training camp, shorter season, less practice time, bad luck, and so on. But the Rangers would survive this.
Certainly making the playoffs, perhaps winning a round, would be enough to salvage a season that would have been reason for celebration just 5 years ago, despite being below the lofty and slightly unrealistic expectations surrounding the organization.
But in the midst of these struggles, there was an undercurrent, a riptide that would eventually turn deadly. You see, the head coach was frustrated, perhaps due to the high expectations that had never followed him in his career in the past, even during his run to the Stanley Cup with the surprisingly good Lightning. He resorted to what he had done all of his career, yelling, screaming, tough love, all in the name of bettering his team, leading them to success.
The players, however, were also struggling with the pressure and expectations. The coach was being too forceful and it was making the game of hockey an unpleasant experience. It was hampering their play instead of aiding it. They wanted a change, and everybody in the locker room knew it. Except for Tortorella.
So, as captain of the Rangers, Ryan Callahan sat down with his head coach and explained the situation. Ease up a bit, we know the problems, we are working towards it, but we need some slack. Tortorella obliged, laid off of the team a little bit more. They continued to struggle and falling short of expectations was a tough pill to swallow, but they got through it together, players and coaches with the same goal in mind.
With a full season and training camp under their belts, the Rangers were refreshed and ready to execute Tortorella's gameplans to success. They came out strong, united by the camraderie that can only be developed by going through bad times together. They forecheck, they possessed the puck, they blocked shots, they scored a decent amount of goals. Enough to win. And win. And win some more. The season had its ups and downs, but eventually, they finished the regular season atop the Metropolitan Division.
They won the first round easily. Had some more trouble in the second round, but gained momentum after putting away the pesky opponent. Brimming with confidence, the Rangers gutted out two 7 game series to lift the Cup for the first time in 20 years in front of a jubilant crowd at Madison Square Garden.
As the players celebrated, Tortorella stood with his arms crossed, a smile creeping at the corners of his mouth, wondering what might have happened if Callahan had not possessed the guts to approach him the prior season. He might have continued to press too hard, been run out of town. He would be coaching some other team, which would be fine, but it wouldn't be the players he developed, the players he cared about, in the city he most wanted to win in. But the Rangers would be in worse shape, completely changing the philosophy and system to one completely unsuited to the personnel, all in the name of erasing the memory on Tortorella from the memories of all those affiliated with the organization. They would lose 9-2, or 6-0 to start the season, and it would only get worse as questions began to build, pressure grew, and Sather was forced to fire his new coach or blow up the promising squad to start over. That would means many more years of waiting for Rangers fans, and no Stanley Cup to bring them joy.
Good thing that did not happen.