(Andy Marlin, Getty Images)

The New York Rangers’ 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils was the first time this postseason that the Rangers have given up 4 goals. They’re averaging just 1.83 goals against per game, second only to the Los Angeles Kings. The defensive performance of the Rangers in the playoffs is even more remarkable when you realize they’ve been playing the vast majority of their games with just 5 defencemen.

6th defenceman Stu Bickel averages approximately 5 minutes of ice time per game, which is one of the reasons why Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh average around 27 minutes per game. With Brandon Prust suspended, however, the Rangers dressed a 7th defenceman in his place, Steve Eminger, who ended up with more ice time this game than in his previous two playoff games combined. Bickel, who started the game as a forward, had 9 minutes of ice time.

Bickel and Eminger ended up seeing more ice time partly because John Tortorella benched Michael Del Zotto for most of the second and third periods. Del Zotto finished the game with 11:39 of total ice time, which is not only his lowest ice time of the playoffs, but his lowest ice time of the entire season. What’s baffling is that this decision came when the Rangers were down by two goals and Del Zotto is one of the Rangers’ best offensive players.

This wasn’t the first time in this series that Tortorella has benched an offensive star in a loss. In game 2, Tortorella benched Marian Gaborik for the first half of the third period after a series of defensive miscues led to the Devils tying the game near the end of the second period. The Devils scored early in the third period, but Gaborik, who scored 41 goals during the regular season, remained on the bench until there were 9 minutes remaining.

Del Zotto is tied with Gaborik for third on the Rangers in postseason scoring, with 10 points in 14 games. He was also their leading defenceman in points in the regular season with 41. Del Zotto is averaging just short of 22 minutes per game in the playoffs and was on pace for just over 22 minutes after the first period, but skated just one shift in the second period and had only four shifts in the third period.

Down 2-0 after the first period, Tortorella appeared to decide that the Rangers needed less of Del Zotto, their best offensive defenceman, and more of Stu Bickel and Steve Eminger, who combined for 14 points this season. As if to put an exclamation point on it, when Del Zotto finally got a few shifts midway through the third period, he got an assist on the Rangers’ only goal, providing both the outlet pass to start the rush and the screen in front of Martin Brodeur.

(Jim McIsaac, Getty Images)

To be fair, Del Zotto definitely struggled early in the game. He was certainly at fault on Travis Zajac’s 2-0 goal as he allowed Zach Parise to walk right around him at the point, had some trouble handling the puck at the offensive blueline, and had a giveaway in his only shift in the second period. To remove an offensive weapon from the lineup in a game where offence is desperately needed, however, seems to be the height of folly.

What was the purpose of benching Del Zotto and Gaborik? Was it to send a message? If so, the Eastern Conference Final seems to be a remarkably poor time and place for that kind of message. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the Rangers lost both games in which one of their best players didn’t play for a large chunk of the game.

In both cases, the player was sent back on the ice halfway through the third period, which would seem to subvert any message being sent - Sit on the bench until we’re really desperate for offence. In Gaborik’s case, the Rangers were only down by one, but the score was 3-0 by the time Del Zotto got back in the game and any offensive push he was able to provide was too little, too late.

Tortorella claimed that he “just wanted to take a little pressure off him and let him watch for a bit.” A few shifts is a “bit.” Del Zotto sat on the bench for nearly half the game.

While Tortorella has done a fantastic coaching job this season and has the Rangers running like a well-oiled, shot-blocking machine, this strikes me as an area where he needs a little flexibility. When down by a goal or two, Stu Bickel and Steve Eminger are not the players that need more ice time. You need to believe that talented offensive players like Gaborik and Del Zotto are going to be able to make up for their defensive miscues by creating a goal at the other end.

Del Zotto did exactly that; imagine if he had been allowed to do that in the second period, when the game was still within reach.

Comments (10)

  1. Did you watch the game? If so, it should be fairly clear why Del Zotto was benched- kid played like a complete pylon for the vast majority of the game. I agree he’s got offensive talent and the Rangers certainly needed a spark, but I have no problem with Tortorella’s decision. That was the worst game I’ve seen Del Zotto play in months, and it’s not like the Rangers don’t have other guys that should be producing offense. I concur that it sends a bit of a mixed message to bench a guy until halfway through the 3rd and then let him play. My point is merely that Del Zotto was absolutely atrocious last night, and spent most of his icetime being a liability at both ends. When you’re playing like that (especially on a Tortorella-coached team), don’t expect big minutes.

    • I did watch the game. Del Zotto had a rough go of it, absolutely. Benching him for the entire second period and most of the third period was a complete overreaction that cost the team one of their best offensive players. When he came back on in the third period, he was just fine.

      If Tortorella had done what he said he had done (let him watch for a bit) and then got him back out there, I wouldn’t have an issue with it. But he didn’t: he benched him for half the game, a game in which they needed an offensive catalyst. Sure, the Rangers have other players who can score, but you need defencemen who can transition the puck up the ice. Stu Bickel and Steve Eminger can’t do that.

      And it’s not just about Del Zotto. Benching Marian Gaborik, the most talented goalscorer the Rangers have, when they’re down by a goal in the third period? Ridiculous. You want to send a message, you sit him for a shift or two, then you get him the hell back out there and tell him to score.

      • I hear ya. As a Ranger fan, I remember being fairly perplexed/frustrated when he benched Gaborik earlier in the playoffs. That being said, the story of last night’s loss goes far beyond a lack of Del Zotto. In fact, the 1st period (in which Del Zotto did play) was easily their worst period of the game. The Rangers needed a lot guys to step up last night and no one did- where was Richards? Where has Stepan been this entire playoffs? Hagelin played pretty well but couldn’t finish. The list goes on. In my opinion, the Rangers have exxentially gotten throttled for at least 4 out of the last 6 periods of this series (they had no business winning game 3 3-0). It’s going to take a wholesale effort from the entire team to get back on track, and if you have a guy regularly coughing up pucks and not doing his job at either end of the ice (even if it’s just for 1 period), that can cost you a game against this NJ team. Hopefully, the Rangers won’t be in a position where we have to question Torts’ decisions after game 5. But based on the last couple games, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we’re having similar conversations on Thursday morning.

  2. Word on the street is that Del Zotto’s grandmother passed away over the weekend, hence perhaps understandable why he may not have been in the best frame of mind for the game….

  3. I think a lot of this is just Tortorella being consistent. He’s fair. I agree that sitting your best offensive weapons in a game in which you’re trailing is silly, but Torts has been preaching defensive hockey all season. In his mind, if you can’t take care of things in your own end, you don’t deserve to play. Good breakouts, blocking shots, clearing pucks is where it all begins with him. Bare-minimum Tortorella hockey. If you can’t do this, Torts doesn’t care if you score 41 goals. Heck, he’s gotten the Rangers this far, I don’t think he feels the need to do anything differently.

    Did I mention NHL coaches are stubborn as hell?

  4. People are missing the most obvious explanation for Torts actions. He’s trying to mimic 1994 as much as possible. The dates of games 3-4-5-6-7 already match up. The Rangers led that series 2-1 going into Game 4 in NJ. The Devils got an early 2-0 lead in the first period of Game 4. Keenan benched Leetch for most of the 2nd period. The Rangers ended up losing 3-1 (no EN goal in that game).

    At this rate, we can expect to see a story any day about how Callahan went into Tororella’s office, they both cried, and all was well. Then in a few weeks, Torts can go work for St. Louis and Petr Nedved can get traded to NY in a wink-wink compensation deal.

  5. I don’t have a horse in this race, but Tortorella looks emotional and at times irrational. Both in the way he is handling the media, and the way he is handling his team. He just doesn’t come off as stable. Which is a surprise given that he has been here before.

    DeBoers on the other hand is showing exactly the kind of coolness that you need behind the bench in big games. He’s not a robot (as was displayed in the between the benches confrontation last night), but he seems to be applying a steady hand.

    Advantage NJ.

    • Im of the opinion that coaching gets so overrated, especially in the playoffs. Like today there are articles about DeBoer making a line change to flip Zubrus and Kovalchuk…as if that was what made Parise a ball of energy. Note to people watching these games – Parise is a ball of energy every game. This game, however, the pucks went in early. That’s the coach’s impact?

      If you flipped these coaches between the teams, do you think there’d be any different outcome? The Rangers aren’t getting outcoached – they are getting outplayed. The Devils have been faster (read: quicker, more instinctively reactionary) than the Rangers all series. They’ve been stronger on the puck. Nothing Torts can do is going to change that. He doesn’t have a Josefson on his roster he can look to insert into the lineup. I believe they will put Dubinsky back in on Wednesday, whether he’s ready or not, because, well, what other choice does he have?

      Unless Tortorella can find a way to make the Rangers quicker…quicker to the puck, quicker to react, quicker to act…the games will keep going like this, and the NYR have to hope they can win special teams battles and have a supreme effort from Lundqvist.

  6. I don’t really get why coaches “send messages” in the first place. Accidents are, by their nature, impossible to deter — no one means to give away the puck or miss their check, etc. If it’s because a guy is playing too loosely or high-risk, asking a guy to stop, and then threatening to bench him if he won’t, makes more sense than actually doing it unless he’s blatantly disregarding instructions — and do they really, or do they just sometimes make mistakes, like everyone else?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *