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It's heartbreaking to watch former Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Tortorella work his magic somewhere else

Four games into the postseason, and the coach is behaving like a brat. He is barking at his players. He is being accused of gamesmanship by the opposing team. When he can't be dismissive with reporters, he switches to snide.

Aw, man, I miss John Tortorella.

For the second year in a row, the NHL's postseason is moving forward without the Tampa Bay Lightning. That this is not a surprise doesn't make it any less disappointing. Nor any easier.

Just look at the landscape around the NHL, and you see remnants of the franchise the Tampa Bay Lightning used to be. Nikolai Khabibulin is in the net in Chicago. Dan Boyle has been clutch in San Jose, and Ruslan Fedotenko is alive and well in Pittsburgh.

But, most noticeable of all, is the man behind the bench for the New York Rangers.

Exactly two months after taking over a team that had just lost 10 of 12 and was in danger of missing the playoffs, John Tortorella has the New York Rangers one victory away from upsetting the second-seeded Washington Capitals and moving into the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Makes you feel good for John Tortorella. Makes you want to watch hockey again.

Makes you wonder how the Tampa Bay Lightning got so screwed up.

Okay, so the Tampa Bay Lightning was in serious trouble even before John Tortorella was fired last summer. And, had he been retained, the over/under had Tortorella doing bodily harm to new owner Oren Koules by Thanksgiving.

(Just before Koules took over the franchise, Tortorella explained his unique affection for his soon-to-be, hands-on boss: "I like the little &%$@#%, I really do," Tortorella said. "I just don't have time to deal with his &%#@*!%#.")

So it would be unfair to suggest Torts would have done more with the Lightning in 2008-09 than he did in '07-08, when the franchise was in a similar state of misery. It was probably the right time for a change, and it was probably the best move for all involved.

Still, it is a little heartbreaking to see the man of a thousand frowns working his magical misery elsewhere.

Tortorella was ours before the rest of the world understood the allure to his intensity. He was the coach who made accountability a part of the game plan, and the guy who showed a young team how to succeed with confidence and aggression.

And now he is doing the same thing in New York, and, meanwhile, the Lightning still seems unsure how to replace him.

A long time ago, Tortorella turned Tampa Bay's fortunes by refusing to compromise. He fought with ownership, he fought with management, he fought with Vinny Lecavalier. And, in the course of all that pushing and shoving, Tortorella taught a largely obscure hockey franchise how to be tougher than the rest of the NHL.

These days, you're seeing something similar in New York. Under previous coach Tom Renney, the Rangers were a counter-punch kind of team. They tried to keep the score low and the bedlam to a minimum.

Tortorella doesn't play that game. He wants to press the issue. He wants to challenge his players and attack his opponents. It worked in Tampa Bay when Khabibulin was at the top of his game and could pick up the slack whenever the offense got too aggressive. It didn't work nearly as well with John Grahame, Sean Burke or Marc Denis in the net.

Now, for the first time in five years, Tortorella has an elite goaltender again. He has the confidence to run the offense he wants. With Henrik Lundqvist around to bail them out of jams, the Rangers can afford to gamble with their anemic offense.

Which means Tortorella is back to his feisty old self. He grumbles a little about officiating, he calls out his own players, he acts as if the Capitals are bit players in this drama. And, all the while, he and the Rangers are stealing a series from a more talented team.

Washington has outscored the Rangers overall but still trails 3 games to 1. New York has won three times by a one-goal margin and can close the series out tonight in Washington.

Here's hoping the Rangers get it done. The NHL is a more entertaining league when Tortorella is in the middle of things. Besides, I like the little &%$@#%.

I really do.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

It's heartbreaking to watch former Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Tortorella work his magic somewhere else 04/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 24, 2009 8:03am]
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