Rangers overcame tough start to get to Cup Final

Saturday, 05.31.2014 / 3:11 PM
Dan Rosen  - NHL.com Senior Writer

NEW YORK -- This was Alain Vigneault letting his hair down for a few moments.

His tie was still done up and his shirt was still crisp, as if it had been recently pressed, but the New York Rangers' coach was very much at ease and even somewhat giddy as he stood at the podium in the press conference room at Madison Square Garden late Thursday.

Vigneault was fielding questions following the Rangers' 1-0 series-clinching win against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final. He had already answered two questions before hearing the third.

Now Vigneault was laughing.

"In October?" Vigneault responded to the question, sounding as if he wanted to be sure he heard it correctly.

That's right, if someone gave you a phone call in October and told you the Rangers would be playing in the Stanley Cup Final in June, what would have been your honest reaction at that moment?

"Probably would have said, 'What are you smoking?'" Vigneault answered, creating a chorus of laughter in a room filled with hockey media.

Nobody around the Rangers was laughing in October. Certainly nobody in New York, or really the NHL at large, had any clue that the Rangers were capable of making the run they have made in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They will play Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final in either Los Angeles or Chicago on Wednesday.

"Our group isn't finished yet," defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "We don't want this to end. We want to continue the journey."

The Rangers looked like they were on a journey to nowhere in the first month of Vigneault's first season behind their bench.

They started the season with nine straight road games. That stretch, and the long training camp in the mountains of Banff, Alberta, that preceded it, were required because of renovations at the Garden.

The Rangers were 3-6-0 with 33 goals against before they played a home game.

Rick Nash was out with a concussion sustained in the third game of the season. Carl Hagelin wasn't playing because of offseason shoulder surgery. Ryan Callahan was playing, but not 100 percent because of a similar offseason shoulder surgery.

"It got a little snakey there for a while," center Brad Richards said. "There were some down moments. It took a while to get everybody going."

"Everybody" included goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who looked like a lost cause with an .890 save percentage in his first seven appearances. Lundqvist was challenging shooters outside his blue paint, something he rarely does. He was out of position and well out of his comfort zone.

"It was my toughest start in my career," Lundqvist said.

New York finally opened at the newly renovated Garden on Oct. 28 and looked listless in a 2-0 loss to the Canadiens. Things couldn't have been bleaker.

Rangers' fans were calling for Vigneault to be fired 10 games into the first season of a reported five-year contract. They wanted John Tortorella back.

The players did not.

"I just felt the patience from the coaching staff," Lundqvist said. "They understood the process for us to be a successful team. We did change a lot of things going into the season. I think it was a time where we had to find ourselves a little bit as a group."

They put themselves in a hole in those first nine games and spent the next 69 games digging themselves out before clinching a playoff berth on April 7.

Along the way, the Rangers traded Callahan to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for Martin St. Louis. They have been without a captain since, but their leadership core is as strong as ever and sparked by Richards, the team's de facto captain.

Martin Biron retired, giving way to rookie Cam Talbot to serve as Lundqvist's backup. Talbot was huge in November and December while Lundqvist struggled to figure out his game.

He did eventually rediscover that game and finished the season with a .920 save percentage.

Through it all, Vigneault never stopped preaching his up-tempo, fast-paced, four-line, forechecking system. The Rangers finally started to get it around Christmas. They found their four-line lineup in March. They have been at their best in the playoffs.

"We lost it, we kept battling, and figured it out," Richards said. "We figured it out to get a chance to win the Cup."

That they did is a testament to Vigneault's consistently calm approach and the players' willingness to fight through the tough moments with an eye toward the light at the end of the tunnel.

The team that barely looked like it belonged in the NHL in October is now awaiting its opponent in the Stanley Cup Final.

Nobody was smoking anything.

"It's been a great ride so far," Lundqvist said.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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