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Rangers face pressure of being top seed in playoffs

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Being the team with the best record in the NHL entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs is new for the New York Rangers. It's not for coach Alain Vigneault, who doesn't think the Rangers have any reason to feel differently than they did in the regular season.

"I believe that we've been hunted since Day One," Vigneault said. "Any time you've got the Stanley Cup champions or the Stanley Cup finalists, any team playing against them, and I used to do the same thing, you're telling your team, 'We've gotta use them as a benchmark.' I'm sure that's what the other 28 teams were doing when they were playing against us."

Vigneault speaks from experience. Twice he took the Vancouver Canucks into the playoffs after they won the Presidents' Trophy; the second time he did it the season after they reached the Stanley Cup Final.

The Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final last season after finishing second in the Metropolitan Division with 96 points. This season, New York won the Presidents' Trophy for the first time since 1993-94, when it last won the Cup, and set Rangers records for wins (53) and points (113).

What did 53 wins and 113 points get the Rangers? The opportunity to face Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins in a best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round series that starts Thursday at Madison Square Garden (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports, ROOT, MSG).

The Penguins slumped at the end of the season, going 4-9-2 in their final 15 games. They're banged up with three of their top-four defensemen and four of their top six out of the lineup. For the first time since 2007, Pittsburgh is not the favorite entering its first-round series.

Despite all that, the Rangers are not going to look past the Penguins, who still have 87 and 71, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had the best season of his career.

"They went through a season with a lot of injuries…but before the season a lot of people were putting them to be a favorite coming out of the East," Rangers center Derick Brassard said. "There's always go to be a favorite and the underdogs, but when the game starts, we're not No. 1 anymore; we have to prove ourselves. There's a lot of good teams that didn't make the playoffs. The No. 8 can beat the No. 1 in both conferences. We expect it to be a really hard series. We're facing two of the best players in the world."

The Rangers are also facing a certain amount of unquantifiable extra pressure that comes with finishing with the best record in the regular season. In some ways it's not an enviable position, even though with the Presidents' Trophy comes home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

That doesn't mean they'll get a chance to put that home-ice advantage to good use.

Though two teams since 2005-06 that won the Presidents' Trophy went on to win the Stanley Cup (Detroit Red Wings, 2008; Chicago Blackhawks, 2013), four out of the past nine winners went out with a whimper.

The Red Wings in 2006, San Jose Sharks in 2009, Washington Capitals in 2010 and Vigneault's Canucks in 2012 lost in the first round after winning the Presidents' Trophy.

"Everyone in the playoffs believes that they can win, and we're no different," Vigneault said. "We know that playoff hockey is very challenging, very demanding. We know going into this series against Pittsburgh, with Crosby and Malkin on that team, that we're going to have to do an unbelievable job defensively to be able to stop that attack from coming at us. I believe we're ready for the challenge and I believe our players feel the same thing."

The Rangers are trying to take the approach that their regular-season finish atop the League standings doesn't matter now. On some level they're correct.

"I don't think any team would take us lightly whether we won the Presidents' Trophy or we didn't win it," defenseman Keith Yandle said. "I don't think it's too big of a difference."

However, forward Tanner Glass, who can speak from experience because he played on Vigneault's team in Vancouver in 2011 when it won the Presidents' Trophy, said the high expectations that come with regular-season success make players more aware of the situation.

"You hear it from outside sources, but for us in the room, we have a ton of respect for Pittsburgh and what they do over there," Glass said. "They were favorites not too long ago."

The Penguins didn't handle it all that well.

Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, when they finished fourth in the conference, the Penguins have been knocked out of the playoffs twice in the first round, twice in the second round and once in the Conference Final, when they scored two goals in four games and lost them all.

Last season, when they had home-ice advantage after winning the Metropolitan Division with a 13-point cushion, the Penguins blew a 3-1 lead to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Second Round and lost in seven games. They scored a combined three goals in Games 5, 6 and 7.

Glass played two games in that Rangers-Penguins series last season -- for Pittsburgh.

"The expectations to win are high," Glass said. "I don't know if we're the favorite or not, but it doesn't really matter when you get into the playoffs the way the parity in the League is now. Anyone can win. We know that as well as anyone."

Anyone can win, but the Rangers are expected to win. Anything short of at least a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final will be considered a disappointment. Arguably anything short of winning the Cup will be deemed a disappointment based on their regular-season success.

The Rangers are the team to beat, but Vigneault doesn't think that should be new to them. He's certainly not worried about how they'll respond.

"We're used to being the hunted," Vigneault said. "We reacted well under that pressure and in those moments, and I expect our group to do the same thing."

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