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Mike Sullivan, John Tortorella put friendship on hold

Coaches all business during Eastern Conference First Round between Penguins, Blue Jackets

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

PITTSBURGH -- What Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella lacked in physical engagement in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, he made up for in emotional investment with a team he once labeled as whiners.

Tortorella spent the entire spring of 2016 texting and talking on the phone with Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, one of his closest friends and a former co-worker, when he embarked on the journey to the Stanley Cup championship.

"I have to admit when we were out last year I was living through him as he was going on his run because I think there's a lot to be said for what that guy did," Tortorella said. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for him not only as a coach but more as a person. Having said that, I'm done talking about him. This is it. I'm done. And I know he feels the same way."

 

[RELATED: Complete Penguins-Blue Jackets coverage]

 

Tortorella said all that Wednesday morning, hours before he stood on the opposite bench from Sullivan in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round between the Blue Jackets and Penguins at PPG Paints Arena. Pittsburgh won 3-1 to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.

Game 2 is Friday at PPG Paints Arena (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports 2, ROOT, FS-O).

For the first time in their NHL careers, the two friends who spent six seasons coaching together from 2007-14, Tortorella the head man and Sullivan his top assistant, in Tampa Bay, New York and Vancouver, are going head-to-head for the right to advance in the playoffs.

It's the first time they're in the playoffs with separate teams since 2004, when Sullivan was with the Boston Bruins and Tortorella the Tampa Bay Lightning. Sullivan's Bruins lost in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens; Tortorella's Lightning won the Stanley Cup.

"Him and I have had this conversation, that this series really isn't about him or I, it's about two really good hockey teams and it's about real good players that are going to compete hard," Sullivan said. "And that's what should be celebrated and that's what should be talked about.

"Yes, we're close friends, but when we compete against each other, when the puck drops, it's like every other game out there, we're going to try to do everything for our respective teams to try to win."

Don't expect either to be fooled by anything the other does. Not even a surprising change in starting goalies before Game 1 was a big shock to Tortorella.

The Penguins started Marc-Andre Fleury instead of Matt Murray because, according to Sullivan, the latter sustained a lower-body injury in pregame warmups. Fleury made 31 saves for his 54th career playoff win, all with the Penguins.

Even though Murray didn't dress for Pittsburgh's final two regular-season games last weekend, Tortorella still thought something was fishy.

"It was kind of peculiar he didn't play at all on the weekend prior to the regular season being over," he said.

Video: The performance tonight of Mark-Andre Fleury

Just to be clear that they are competitors now, Sullivan didn't hesitate to throw the first soft verbal jab of the series at his counterpart during an in-game interview with NBCSN's Pierre McGuire midway through the first period.

McGuire asked Sullivan if he was impressed with how the Blue Jackets, who had a 16-3 edge in shots on goal in a 0-0 first period, were getting the matchup they wanted against Sidney Crosby's line, i.e. putting Brandon Dubinsky out against him despite not having the last change.

"Listen, any coach can get any matchup if they want to run to the bench," Sullivan told McGuire. "That's their prerogative. We're just going to play the game."

It was harmless, really, but you wonder if these two close friends will pull out the heavy artillery at any point in the series. If they do, it'll be out of competitiveness, not animosity or disrespect.

"Working six or seven years together through some good times and quite honestly you become even closer through adversity," Tortorella said. "I've learned a ton from him."

Sullivan said the exact same thing.

"One of the reasons why I joined his coaching staff was to work beside him and try to learn and grow as a coach and as a person myself," Sullivan said. "Torts is a guy that's had a lot of experience. He's had success. He's won at every level he's been at."

Their relationship started long before they became co-workers with the Lightning during the 2007-08 season. Tortorella was an assistant with the then Phoenix Coyotes and Sullivan was a player during the 1998-99 season. They would talk hockey non-stop.

Years later, Sullivan joined Tortorella's staff in Tampa Bay. Tortorella was fired after the 2007-08 season and sat on the sidelines for the first three quarters of the 2008-09 season before getting hired as New York Rangers coach on Feb. 23, 2009.

Sullivan joined Tortorella's staff in New York at the start of the 2009-10 season, beginning a four-year tenure that featured a run to the 2012 Eastern Conference Final.

Sullivan was the good cop, and at times the bad cop, to Tortorella's bad cop routine in New York. Each was fired after the 2012-13 season, but landed with the Vancouver Canucks for the following season. Each was fired after one season.

Tortorella went back to doing television work and sat out the 2014-15 season. Sullivan went to work as a player development coach with the Chicago Blackhawks. He earned a Stanley Cup ring before taking a job to coach the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

"After being fired he was willing to go and try to get back to the National Hockey League the hard way, going to the minors, moving his family again and went about his business the proper way where a lot of people wouldn't do that," Tortorella said. "A lot of people's ego would have gotten in the way."

Tortorella was hired by the Blue Jackets to replace Todd Richards on Oct. 21, 2015. Sullivan joined him in the Metropolitan Division replacing Mike Johnston in Pittsburgh on Dec. 12, 2015.

Sullivan took the Penguins on a Stanley Cup run last season. Tortorella felt every twinge of emotion from his couch. And now they're here, in a series together, trying to defeat each other.

Communication has been cut off.

"We'll have a beer over the summer," Tortorella said. "We'll talk again then."

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