NEW YORK, N.Y. – John Tortorella stood out again at a playoff news conference. Only this time it was because of his feistiness toward the New Jersey Devils and not for his brevity and contentiousness with the media.
The New York coach defended Rangers forward Brandon Prust, who was given a one-game suspension Sunday because of an elbow to the head of New Jersey defenceman Anton Volchenkov, and accused the Devils of embellishing to draw penalties in the Eastern Conference finals.
“We tell our players, ‘Don’t stay down on the ice. Get up,'” Tortorella said Sunday. “I’ll leave it at that. If we want to start discussing officials with the media, I have a long list here.”
He then began to air it.
Tortorella said the Devils set picks during power plays to set up shots for Ilya Kovalchuk and prevent the Rangers from getting into position to block them. He added that forward Dainius Zubrus elbowed New York defenceman Anton Stralman on Saturday, and said top New Jersey forward Zach Parise launched himself into another defenceman, Michael Del Zotto.
Neither of those players, nor Prust, was penalized for their hits during the Rangers’ 3-0 win that gave New York a 2-1 lead in the East finals.
Kovalchuk scored a power-play goal in Game 2 that the Rangers say was made possible by a pick.
“We’re trying not to get picked,” Rangers forward Brad Richards said. “Sometimes you get picked. We’re trying to let the refs know and have them look at it.”
Prust had a chance to present his version of the hit during a telephone hearing with NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan on Sunday morning. It wasn’t enough for him to avoid having to sit out Game 4 on Monday night in New Jersey.
“I was able to talk quite a bit and explain where I was coming from,” Prust said. “I was just trying to get into that check, I was at the end of a shift, just skating over for a routine check, I just wanted to rub him out and get off the ice.
“He bailed out of it and turned and kind of went low. It’s just kind of a reaction. When you’re off-balance, your arms go up, I didn’t want to do a face plant into the boards. It was just kind of a reaction, I had no intent to hit him in the head there. There was nothing vicious about it.”
Prust’s elbow connected with the back of Volchenkov’s helmet near the boards at 2:38 of the second period. Volchenkov stayed down for a bit, but remained in the game and didn’t miss a shift.
Prust has received only two elbowing penalties in his career.
“I know I’ve played a lot of professional hockey games and never been suspended before,” he said. “I don’t even think I had an elbowing penalty this year. I didn’t even really feel that elbow. I went to the bench and thought maybe I caught him with my knee, maybe charley-horsed him.
“I didn’t hit him that hard, I think I just kind of grazed his helmet a little bit, and it stood up. For sure he’s trying to get a penalty when your helmet comes up. It’s just natural to try to sell it for a power play.”
Not surprisingly, Devils coach Peter DeBoer saw it quite differently.
“Head hunting. Plain and simple,” he said Saturday.
Prust wasn’t fazed a bit by DeBoer’s characterization.
“I’m not really too worried about what he has to say,” Prust said. “He’s not my coach.”
Prust’s suspension was the 13th handed out by Shanahan during this post-season, and the second to a Rangers player. Rookie forward Carl Hagelin was given a three-game ban in the first round for an elbow to the head of Daniel Alfredsson that gave the Ottawa Senators captain a concussion.
This is just the latest banter between the Devils and Rangers and their respective head coaches.
Tensions erupted on March 19 in the final regular-season meeting between the Atlantic Division rivals, when DeBoer had enforcers Cam Janssen, Eric Boulton and Ryan Carter in the starting lineup, and Tortorella countered with a physical lineup of Prust, Mike Rupp and Stu Bickel.
The game began with those six players engaging in fights.
DeBoer said Tortorella’s remarks on Sunday were, “comical.”
“Calling Prust a head hunter is unnecessary,” Rangers defenceman Marc Staal said. “He has been a pretty honest player his whole career.”
Tortorella backed up Prust on Sunday, saying he didn’t feel the hit warranted a suspension. He also noted that Prust has never faced disciplinary action in his five NHL seasons.
“Prust has played probably 300-plus games without any hearing, anything going on with him,” he said. “He’s probably one of the most honest players.
“Maybe if our players stayed down on the ice, we’ll get something.”
Without Prust, the Rangers could turn to Brandon Dubinsky to replace him. Dubinsky hasn’t played since Game 7 of the first-round series against Ottawa, when he injured his right foot or ankle. Dubinsky skated with his teammates while wearing a contact jersey during Sunday’s optional practice.
Another possibility is Mats Zuccarello, who has been sidelined since March 23 with a broken wrist.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with the lineup,” Tortorella said. “I don’t think he should be suspended, so I really haven’t gone that far.”
Whether Tortorella’s comments were fuelled by anger or gamesmanship, the fiery coach wasn’t about to sit back and have one of his players attacked at this critical juncture of the playoffs.
“We pride ourselves on playing hard between the whistles,” Staal said. “We don’t have guys on our team that dive and try to embellish.”
New York is looking to grab its first two-game lead in the playoffs. The Rangers were forced to seven games in the first two rounds by Ottawa and Washington, and would like to bring a 3-1 edge home to Madison Square Garden for Game 5 on Wednesday night.
The Devils could have a few new looks on Monday night, too. New Jersey is on the verge of getting forward Jacob Josefson into the lineup for the first time in the playoffs. Josefson, who practised on a line with Alexei Ponikarovsky and David Clarkson on Sunday, has been out since he broke his left wrist on April 3.
“Coach told me I’m playing, and I’m very ready to go,” Josefson said. “It feels great. My body feels great. It may be a little tough stepping in, but I’m a little more excited than anything. I’ve been getting better every day and I felt I could play in this series. It’s just a matter of when. I just hope I do well.”
Josefson’s return will likely force out struggling veteran Petr Sykora, who practised with the extra players on Sunday.
“He finished the season very strong,” DeBoer said of Josefson. “The last three, four weeks of the season he was great. Fresh legs this time of year, you’re 15 games into a playoff run, can never hurt. He’s been an effective guy for us, and we missed him while he was out.”
DeBoer also tinkered with his lines and split up the high-powered duo of Kovalchuk and Parise.
“I was everywhere today,” Kovalchuk said.
Zubrus took Kovalchuk’s place at right wing alongside Parise and Travis Zajac. Kovalchuk, who has played right wing since Nov. 2 against Toronto, went back to left wing on a line with Adam Henrique and Patrik Elias.
“We got shut out and we’re trying to generate some offence,” DeBoer said. “It’s been a general procedure for us to move some people around. The easy thing would be to stick with what we had, but we decided to shuffle some things around and hopefully we’ll get results from it. Zubrus with Parise and Kovalchuk, they’ve had some chemistry in the past, prior to me even getting here. I hope that can translate to some chances.”