'We created a monster': John Tortorella on the Lightning's evolution after 2019 sweep

‘We created a monster’: John Tortorella on the Lightning’s evolution after 2019 sweep

NEW YORK — As John Tortorella watches another Lightning playoff run — they are six wins from a Stanley Cup three-peat — one prevailing thought comes to mind.

“We created a monster,” Tortorella told The Athletic on Wednesday.

Tortorella is the last coach to beat Tampa Bay in a playoff series, in 2019 when the Columbus Blue Jackets shocked the hockey world and swept the then-Presidents’ Trophy winners. Lightning coach Jon Cooper and his players have talked about how that humbling defeat was a turning point in their championship arc, and how they might not be chasing a history now without that fall.

The Lightning have won 10 consecutive series since, and are tied 2-2 with the Rangers heading into Thursday’s Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final. What’s been the biggest change Tortorella has seen?

“I don’t think it was Xs and Os. I think it was a mindset,” said Tortorella, who is now an ESPN analyst. “That (2019) Lightning team was all-world when they came into the playoffs, and I don’t think they respected us. Sometimes you’ve got to eat it, and when you eat it, you might still be stubborn and not want to change anything. They ate it and realized they had to change and play a little differently. They changed some personnel. It’s a true credit to their organization that was willing to swallow a little bit and say, ‘You know, we’ve got to change.’”

Tortorella used the Lightning’s 4-1 victory over the Rangers in Tuesday’s Game 4 as an example. They were checking. They were disciplined. They could play different ways. That wasn’t necessarily the case in the spring of 2019, when the Lightning was coming off an NHL-record tying 62-win regular season. Cooper has even called them the “greatest show on ice.”

“Back then, we felt they were going to play one way. They’d try to beat us offensively,” Tortorella said. “They were that good. I don’t want to disrespect that team. They were that good. But we just concentrated on basically not giving them odd-man rushes and see if they’d get stubborn. Would they dump it in? I thought we were successful that way.”

This Lightning group can adapt to whatever style of team they’re facing, Tortorella said. Case in point was Tuesday night.

“They checked, and they didn’t turn the puck over like they did the first couple games of the series,” Tortorella said. “I don’t think they were stubborn in their ways. They’re very good at finding a way to win, and you have to sacrifice something you really want to do. And those things you have to do are sometimes tougher. They have that proper mindset.”

The Blue Jackets’ game plan in 2019 involved taking away Tampa Bay’s transition game through the neutral zone. They wanted to hit Victor Hedman every time he went back for a puck, and the Norris Trophy winner was not himself in that series after a late-season injury. They wanted to put bodies in the blue paint around goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who admitted afterward that the strategy impacted him. But a primary focus for Columbus was Nikita Kucherov, that year’s Hart Trophy winner, who had set a record for Russian-born players with 128 points. Tortorella said they wanted to just be physical with the star forward and get him off his game, which they clearly did, as Kucherov was suspended for Game 3 after a frustration-sparked boarding penalty at the end of Game 2.

Kucherov’s transformation and maturation are big reasons why Tampa Bay has won the last two championships, and the Columbus series was a learning moment.

“We wanted to bang around Kucherov,” Tortorella said. “We respected him, that’s why we were doing it. At the time, in my opinion, he was a lot more immature back then. I felt we could get under his skin. And he got suspended.

“But I watch some of these guys play now, and I don’t think much gets (Kucherov) off his game. He’s matured tremendously. When he turns it on, he’s so dangerous. His resurgence has been key in them getting back in the series. I thought we got under his skin and part of our game plan was to push him, finish checks, see if he’s willing to play through it. Now he is.”

Tortorella lauded Tampa Bay management for changing their personnel and bringing in new voices like Pat Maroon, Luke Schenn and Zach Bogosian. They transformed the personality of their team by adding to their bottom six in deals for Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow in 2020, and Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel this year.

“They can handle themselves in a team game,” Tortorella said. “I’m impressed with the way Steven Stamkos has spoken in between games, and matured. I think they can beat the Rangers. I really do. I know that home ice is very important in these playoffs, but in New York, it’s going to be the champs vs. the kids.

“The kids are carefree, but are they starting to feel the pressure? Do the champs put their will on them? I’m anxious to see how it works out.”

Tortorella remembers being ticked off heading into that Tampa Bay series in 2019. He felt nobody was asking any questions about them — it was all about the Lightning. He used that as fuel in speeches with his Blue Jackets team, creating a “bunker mentality.”

“I was furious before the series even started,” Tortorella said. “We had zero respect. I didn’t say anything to you guys (the media), but we tried to fuel our team that way. It’s amazing what motivation can do. We were all believing as a group.”

Tortorella acknowledges that the 2019 series, and history, might have been different had it not been for the turning point in Game 1. Tampa Bay was up 3-0 early in the second period and was on the power play. Kucherov had a point-blank chance in front just 26 seconds in. But goalie Sergei Bobrovsky made a spectacular save. The Blue Jackets scored four straight goals and won 4-3.

“We got some juice and scored the next goal,” Tortorella said. “If we get scored on and it’s 4-0, it changes everything. That’s how crazy the playoffs are. Things could change very quickly. But we started to get some belief. I felt Tampa got more stubborn with the puck.”

Tortorella has long said that Brayden Point is the “engine” for Tampa Bay and that Kucherov is their biggest offense star. But Tortorella really admires and appreciates what Ondrej Palat brings.

“I call him a poor man’s Brayden Point,” Tortorella said. “I don’t think people realize how good he is. From a coach’s point of view, there’s nothing better than to have a guy that can make an impact with a mentality a fourth-liner has to have and also make plays on the top line.”

Tortorella said Cooper should get a ton of credit because changing a team’s mentality has a lot to do with the coach. “When you can’t put your pride in your pocket a bit and be honest about what happened, what we need to change, you get stuck in the mud,” Tortorella said. “And they didn’t get stuck in the mud.

“They took off.”

Tortorella led the Lightning to their first championship in 2004, with Tuesday being the 18th anniversary of that historic moment. It made him think back to how hard it is to win hockey’s holy grail. He traded messages with some of the old staff that is still there, like head athletic trainer Tommy Mulligan and former GM Jay Feaster, who is now the team’s executive director of community hockey. Tortorella has coached the Rangers and the Lightning, and still has an affinity for Tampa Bay.

“I think it’s one of the best organizations in the National Hockey League,” Tortorella said.”They won two in a row and they have a chance to win three. They matured and they can play any way you want, and that’s what changed the past two years.

“We were just trying to win a series, and they took the step to do it the right way.”

(Photo of Steven Stamkos from 2019: Aaron Doster / USA Today)

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