Here is my (unedited) column from The Journal News and LoHud.com:
By Rick Carpiniello
GREENBURGH – John Tortorella’s got a new toy, something he hasn’t had in his first three-plus seasons as Rangers coach.
He has three legitimate first-line players, and with it the opportunity to put all those eggs in one basket from time to time, or for as long as he can.
But, as with anything as potentially intoxicating as sending your three most potent players over the boards time after time, a coach has to proceed with caution.
There is a danger in falling in love with the Rick Nash-Brad Richards-Marian Gaborik line, which has been responsible for both of the Rangers wins this season, and which disappeared in the loss in between against Philadelphia, which comes to the Garden tonight.
“When the big line has played, they’ve played very well,” said Tortorella, who tries to get defensemen Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto out with that group as a unit of five. “We lose the game in Philly when I had them together and they were an absolute no-show. The two games that they do stand up and play, we end up winning. But, sure, it’s a concern on the other part of it, the balance. I think there’s a number of people that need to get more consistent in all phases of the game.
“It would be nice to keep that line together, but other guys have to get going. We can’t just rely on that line, and that’s where I’ve got to be really careful. I can’t get a dependency there because if that struggles we have no chance. We need to get other people going, and that’s part of my responsibility as a coach … I’ve got to try to find a way to get them into some situations where they get some confidence back and that’s where it comes (to) maybe splitting up that line at times. These are all things that go through my mind each game, and as each game starts I have a blank sheet as far as what I want to do. I just try to let it play out throughout the game.”
A number of teams have top-loaded up this season with success, notably San Jose, where Patrick Marleau leads the NHL with nine goals playing on a line with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski (they have 36 points in six games); in Minnesota where Mikko Koivu plays with Zach Parise and Dany Heatley; in Tampa Bay, where often Martin St. Louis plays with Vinny Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos.
Richards, in fact, played with St. Louis and Lecavalier, under Tortorella, at times in Tampa … and won the Conn Smythe Trophy when the Lightining won the Stanley Cup in 2004.
“He put me Marty, Vinny together a lot in the early years when we won and before we won, at different times, even in the playoffs that year sometimes you’d load it up,” Richards said. “But it depends on how the team’s going. If you’re winning with two lines that are going good, you don’t have to do that. It kind of depends on how everything’s going within the group.
“The mindset is, obviously, we feel like we’ve got to accomplish stuff. You know, we’re not out there to kill the clock. But for all three of us, I’m pretty sure our whole career we’ve been going out on the ice, offensive guys, always going out with a mindset of trying to score, try to produce. In that sense it’s no different.”
It would make the Rangers better and Tortorella’s decision-making a lot easier, of course, if the Rangers got more offense from a second line that has not produced much at all, or from a third. Gaborik (5-3-8), Richards (2-4-6) and Nash (1-4-5) have more points than all the other Rangers forwards together.
So maybe, eventually, Gaborik plays on a second line with Derek Stepan (0-4-4) and Ryan Callahan (1-0-1), while Carl Hagelin (0-0-0), for example, moves up with Richards and Nash.
Or Tortorella can ride the big three for as long and far as it will carry his team.
Photo by Getty Images.