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School in session for Rangers

by Dan Rosen
GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Listening to Paul Mara describe Tuesday's events at the Madison Square Garden Training Center certainly made you realize this was not an ordinary day for a hockey team in late February.

"For everyone in here it felt like the first day of school," Mara told "Everyone is excited. Everyone brought a new vigor."

With John Tortorella now the principal of the New York Rangers, working his first day on the job, every student was on his best behavior. Tortorella put the players through an up-tempo, hour-long practice Tuesday morning, officially turning the page on Tom Renney's chapter as coach of the Original Six franchise.

Tortorella immediately got the attention of his new team.

Practice began with interim assistant coach Jim Schoenfeld putting the Rangers through some hard skating drills. For the most part, Tortorella stood in a corner and watched until the Rangers were finished stretching around the center-ice circle.

Then he took over and his booming voice was omnipresent. It could be heard loud and clear by the large contingent of media watching from beyond the glass in one corner of the rink.

At one point Tortorella, wanting to talk solely to the defensemen at center ice, shooed all the forwards off to the sides. He barked at players to pick up their speed, pick up the pace, move the puck.

Practice continued as Tortorella had the team run some drills and then threw out some potential line combinations and defensive pairs for his first game Wednesday night in Toronto.

Some of the players likened the practice to the first day of training camp.

"It was quick, but any time a change is made guys want to make a good first impression," Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky said. "What happened was a little bit of a wake-up call of where we need to be and what we need to do to in order to get there. Everyone came out today and had that effort, that attack mentality, knowing we have to get this thing turned around. We have to get moving."

Added goalie Henrik Lundqvist: "It's the first day with a new coach so everybody wants to show their good side, but it was a little different. There were shorter drills, but a lot of speed."

The Rangers still seem genuinely upset that their poor play of late had to result in a popular coach like Renney getting fired. However, by the end of Tuesday's practice they all were ready to move forward into the new Tortorella era.

Even though they have 69 points and are sixth in the Eastern Conference despite a recent 2-7-3 stretch that cost Renney his job, the Rangers have begun to call this a 21-game season, and they're acting as if they are 0-0.

"It was a great first day," captain Chris Drury said. "It was up-tempo. There was a lot of excitement in the room and excitement on the ice."

Tortorella didn't get too much of an opportunity to go over the systems he wants to implement, but he did spend some time during practice make mention of some changes he'll make to the Rangers' forecheck.

While Renney felt the Rangers were best suited for a passive, defensive game, Tortorella wants his team to be in attack mode all the time. He admits he's not sure how that's going to work with the players he has, but he's certainly going to find out.

"That's the way he likes it," said Dubinsky, who played four games under Tortorella at the 2008 IIHF World Championship in Quebec. "He likes to attack and get going, move up and pressure a lot. He's won a Stanley Cup (with Tampa Bay in 2004), so obviously that style works. We're ready to embrace it and take the challenge on."

The Rangers have scored only 142 goals this season, 27th in the NHL entering Tuesday's games. Their power play, a problem all season, currently is 28th. Markus Naslund is their leading scorer with 18 goals. Only Minnesota (Owen Nolan, 17) and the New York Islanders (Bill Guerin, 16) have a leading scorer with less.

"I'm sure the forwards and the playmakers on the team are pretty excited to be able to just go and not think," defenseman Marc Staal told "It can be good for us to be free to attack and score some goals."

They know if they don't, they're going to be held accountable, especially the team's so-called best players like Drury, Naslund, Scott Gomez, Nikolai Zherdev, Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival.

"I'm not a four-line guy, and your best players need to be your decision-makers," Tortorella said. "They are going to get every opportunity to win hockey games for us. As long as they show me that they can compete hard -- and that's something they can control -- I'm going to give them every opportunity. There may be some tough times, but if they are playing hard I'm going to get them right back out there to allow them to work through it."

School is back in and no grades have been handed out yet, but Tortorella expects all his players to want to earn an 'A.'

"It challenges everyone (to have a demanding coach) and you definitely know where you stand," Staal said. "There is no place to hide with everyone around here and us in the thick of the playoff race."

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