NEW YORK -- John Tortorella isn't an optimist or a pessimist -- he's a realist.
He knows that even after a 4-1 victory against the New York Islanders on Thursday night, the reality is his New York Rangers have a long way to go before they recover the form of last year's team that came within six victories of a Stanley Cup.
"We have to find a way to get points and we did," said Tortorella, whose team is 5-5-0 through 10 games. "But I think there's a lot of sloppiness with our game, as far as on the puck. There are a lot of things that need to continue to improve. But the key thing is finding ways to get points as we try to get better as a team."
Following a 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night, Tortorella made no secret about his displeasure with his players. He didn't single out anyone, but heaped praise on rookies J.T. Miller, a 19-year-old who was making his NHL debut, and Chris Kreider, who scored the team's lone goal in the loss.
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Tortorella talked about how his veterans looked "scared," and while he later said the intent of that statement wasn't to make players fear for their jobs, he ended Brian Boyle's streak of 164 straight games by making him a healthy scratch against the Islanders.
Less than two hours before the puck dropped at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, Tortorella again discussed his team's shortcomings. He hinted at specific players who, along with Boyle, may have deserved to be scratched but were making too much money to receive the same fate.
"There's a couple of top guys, but they've got a little bit of a bank account," Tortorella said. "But they have five goals and Brian has squat. Certainly, the other guys are going to be held accountable also. As we start this and try to get our team to understand this just isn't good enough, we'll start here.
"Listen, there's no question that when you have a third-, fourth-line guy, they're easy targets because they don't have the goals and the type of things they do for the team. Some other guys that I'm really upset with are also making plays throughout the game."
The only Ranger who had five goals coming into Thursday's game was Marian Gaborik, who scored his sixth of the season against the Islanders. Linemate Brad Richards, who has his share of struggles through the first 10 games despite his nine points, helped set up the goal.
Tortorella didn't call out those players by name, but he may have been showing how he felt about them with their playing time against the Islanders. Gaborik (14:42) and Richards (15:54) both played their fewest minutes of the season -- and in Richards' case, he has only had five games as a Ranger in which he played less. Gaborik had only one game last season in which he had less ice time.
Gaborik played just 1:11 more than Miller, who scored his first two NHL goals while playing in Boyle's spot as the third-line center between Kreider and Ryan Callahan in his first game back from a shoulder injury.
Did the benching of Boyle get the message across in Tortorella's eyes? Did he see his team raise his game in a three-goal victory?
Actually, Tortorella thought his team played better at even strength in a three-goal loss to the Devils.
"I'm not so sure that happens," Tortorella said. "I think athletes are proud guys. I know this group is a good group of guys. I think they're trying to play better. Quite honestly, I thought we played better 5-on-5 in Jersey than we did tonight. But we win 4-1 – who's to figure the game out? I thought we were more consistent 5-on-5 in Jersey."
"So I don't really buy it. Coaches have to do what they have to do. And like I said, I have two kids come here and it jams up a lineup. Someone had to come out, so I had to pick who was playing better in that type of role Brian's playing in. And Brian lost this one. I just think the team scored some timely goals."
Last season, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was exceptional from start to finish and was rewarded with his first Vezina Trophy. He hasn't been sharp in the early going and entered Thursday's game with a 3-5-0 record, a 2.83 goals-against average and .900 save percentage.
Not even Lundqvist could escape Tortorella's ire before his 27-save performance.
"No, he falls right into it," Tortorella said. "I'm not going to bench Hank. There's no question he needs to be better."
Only a perfect wrist shot from Islanders center John Tavares prevented Lundqvist from earning a shutout. Now in his eighth season in the League, the 30-year-old Lundqvist admitted afterward that he didn't need Tortorella to tell him he needed to be better.
"Oh yeah, I get that from myself," Lundqvist said of the criticism. "I look in the mirror every day. When things are not going well and you're not willing you look at yourself. What can I do better to help this team to win? When you're not winning you're not smiling and you can't enjoy the game. This was a great game for us. I thought we did a lot of good things."
One of those good things was the play of the special teams. The Rangers' power play improved to 4-for-37 on the season by going 1-for-2 Thursday, and the penalty-killers snuffed out all five Islanders power plays.
Miller's power-play goal came off the rush, as he took a pass through the neutral zone from Ryan McDonagh and beat goaltender Evgeni Nabokov on a breakaway. As pretty as the goal was, it wasn't a classic power-play goal that came as the result of moving the puck around the offensive zone.
Tortorella was quick to temper any enthusiasm about the goal and called the power play "ugly."
"We had one setup there where I thought we moved it fairly well," Tortorella said. "I liked our speed on the entry and we end up scoring the goal. We'll continue working at it. It's a big goal for us tonight, no matter how we score it, no matter how ugly it was, we scored a goal on the power play."
Tortorella wanted more from his top players Thursday, and Gaborik scored. He wanted more from the middle of his lineup, and Miller scored twice while Boyle watched from the press box. He wanted more from his special teams, and they came through at both ends of the ice. He wanted more from his goaltender, and Lundqvist answered the call.
Tortorella got almost everything he wanted from his team against the Islanders, but the Rangers know they can still do more.
"It's never too early to talk about the importance of a win," Callahan said. "I think the biggest thing for us now is to put a few together. We can't keep going back and forth, win one and lose one, especially with this shortened season. We have to build on this and get better as we go here."