Philadelphia, PA – Just moments after watching his goaltender take a punch to the chest, New Jersey Devils head coach Peter DeBoer decided it was time to have a chat with his counterpart on the New York Rangers bench.
What ensued was the lasting image from Game 4 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, as DeBoer and John Tortorella shouted across the benches at each other.
The Devils already were leading the Rangers 3-0 at the time of the screaming match and they went on to win the contest by a 4-1 score to even the best-of- seven series at two games apiece.
With the game nearly in hand, it's not like the spectacle that played out between DeBoer and Tortorella had any lasting impact on the outcome of the game, but it makes sense that it happened. The two head coaches had been chirping at each other through the press over the course of the conference finals and the bad blood between these teams had built up long before this series ever began.
The animosity finally spilled over Monday night when New York's Mike Rupp, a physical forward who spent several of his NHL seasons as a Devil, skated from behind the New Jersey net after a stoppage and delivered a jab to the chest of Martin Brodeur. The future Hall of Fame goaltender stumbled backwards into his net and chaos ensued -- both on the ice and over at the benches, where DeBoer and Tortorella jawed at each other.
Although no fights happened as a result of the Rupp punch, when the dust cleared it was obvious the Rangers were grasping at ways to get back into the game. The reason it didn't work is because DeBoer has taught his team to not rise to the physical bait, especially when things are going so well for them between the whistles.
Time and time again in New Jersey's five-game series' triumph over Philadelphia in the second round, the ruffled Flyers tried to turn the momentum by engaging the Devils with rough stuff after the whistle. The same thing happened almost every time, as the Devils players simply skated away and forced Philadelphia to stew in its own frustration.
Oddly enough, DeBoer's desire that his team not engage in extracurricular activity with the opposition may have led to him being the aggressor in his heated verbal exchange with Tortorella. Rather than one of his players risking a suspension in order to answer Rupp's punch, DeBoer stepped in to do the dirty work.
In his post-game remarks, DeBoer brushed aside questions about the fracas, saying, "This isn't about John and I. This is about the guys on the ice." However, DeBoer seemed to change his tune several hours later at an off-day press conference.
"I think emotion takes over," DeBoer said. "Again I don't know the word 'defend,' but I took offense at what happened on the ice, and that was my outlet, right or wrong."
Not only is DeBoer making the right decisions in how to best manage his club's emotions, but he's also doing a great job at picking the right time to mix up his lines. In Game 2, he put star wingers Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise on the same line and the Devils posted a 3-2 win to even the series at 1-1.
However, after losing a 3-0 decision in Game 3, DeBoer opted to put Parise on a line with centerman Travis Zajac and winger Dainius Zubrus. What followed was the best performance of this year's playoffs by New Jersey's captain, as Parise scored twice and added an assist to get his team back on even footing in this series.
A great deal has been made about DeBoer's assistant coaches, Larry Robinson and Adam Oates, this postseason, and rightfully so. Robinson won six Stanley Cups as a player and led the Devils to another championship as the team's head coach in the spring of 2000. Oates was one of the NHL's all-time great playmakers and seems destined to have an NHL head coaching job of his own in the near future.
Those assistants are great assets for DeBoer to have during his first NHL postseason as a head coach, but the pressure of making decisions that affect the team falls on him alone. So far, he's been able to pull all the right strings in what has been the most exciting playoff run New Jersey has experienced since winning its last Stanley Cup in 2003.
Thanks in large part to DeBoer's leadership, the Devils now find themselves in a best-of-three situation against the top-seeded team in East. If Game 4 was any indication of what the rest of this series will look like, the Devils will need a steady hand to steer them through to the Cup Finals.