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Rangers return home ready to dig out of early hole

by Tal Pinchevsky /

NEW YORK -- It has been more than four months since the New York Rangers named Alain Vigneault their new coach, but the former Vancouver Canucks coach admits he is still getting his bearings around the city that never sleeps.

"I'm getting there," Vigneault said hours before the team's home opener at Madison Square Garden on Monday night. "I didn't end up in [New] Jersey."

Vigneault can hardly be blamed for how slowly he has acclimated to New York. After all, almost a month into the 2013-14 season, he and the Rangers have barely been home. Now that they're back in New York, the Rangers will need to ride some of the momentum they gained in the past week if they hope to overcome their difficult start.

With the Garden undergoing the final phase of a three-year, $1 billion, top-to-bottom renovation, the Rangers were forced to contend with a six-week trip that began with training camp in Banff, Alberta, and proceeded through a 3-6-0 start to the season. It's the kind of marathon trip most players go their entire careers without seeing.

"The first 10-day trip, we did that four times out west. That we're used to," said forward Derek Dorsett, who experienced the occasional lengthy trip while with the Columbus Blue Jackets. "But two of them back to back? That's a pretty heavy schedule. But that's no excuse. Everyone's going to go through long stretches, and we've just got to make sure we get home and get back on the right track and get this thing headed in the right direction."

It was Vigneault's great success with a high-flying Canucks team, culminating with an appearance in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, that inspired the Rangers to tab him as their new coach. But considering the mammoth trip the Rangers completed Saturday with a 3-2 overtime win against the Detroit Red Wings, Vigneault was uniquely qualified for the Rangers job.

Believe it or not, he has seen worse road trips.

"In the 2010 Olympic year, we [Vancouver] were forced out of our building for almost seven weeks. It was the same type of situation that we faced here. It's challenging but it's not an excuse," Vigneault said. "We haven't played to our expectations. We're working on our game right now. Hopefully we'll get it to where it needs to be to have success in this League."

From Jan. 28 to March 13, 2010, Vigneault and the Canucks were set adrift as Rogers Arena hosted the 2010 Winter Olympic hockey tournament. Vancouver went 8-5-1 on that odyssey. But the Rangers' 3-6-0 trip has inspired more than a little worry among the Blueshirts faithful. It was only magnified when New York was forced to contend with injuries to forwards Rick Nash and Ryan Callahan, as well as a lingering ailment that forced goalie Henrik Lundqvist to miss two games.

Despite the injuries, New York may have slowly turned things around.

With injuries to two of their top forwards and speedy wing Carl Hagelin still out after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, Vigneault and his staff were forced to alter their game plan. The results were encouraging, as the team went 2-2-0 in the past four games, allowing just eight goals. In that span, the Rangers have played their best defensive hockey this season, which is encouraging considering Lundqvist was forced to sit.

"We definitely talked when we lost Callahan and Nash, we talked about playing a little bit closer to the vest," Vigneault said. "I believe slowly but surely everybody is starting to understand what we need to do on a consistent basis."

he team was still slowly adopting Vigneault's game plan when they pulled off a crucial victory in Detroit on Saturday. Not only was the win encouraging heading back home, but the game was tied on wing Mats Zuccarello's goal before center Derick Brassard won the game in overtime. It was the first goal of the season for both players.

Brad Richards has rebounded nicely from a difficult 2012-13 season, leading the team with five goals and eight points. The hope now is players like Brassard and Zuccarello can provide secondary scoring and turn around a Rangers season many fans feared could be on the brink.

"The next two weeks I think we play eight games. It's going to be really important just to take it one game at a time and focus on our game. I think our main goal is to come back to .500," Brassard said. "We just need a few wins here and to come back to the way we used to play. The win in Detroit gave us a lot of confidence. It feels good to be at home. We just have to take advantage of being at the Garden for a while."

New York now plays five of its next six and nine of its next 12 games at home. That home cooking will come in handy, but the Rangers will still have to win those games. If they don't, the team will be in a pretty deep hole just seven weeks into the season.

Vigneault isn't worried, and he certainly isn't making any excuses.

"I'm not looking at any stretches. Even though we just played nine games on the road, I wasn't looking at it as nine games. I was looking at it as one game at a time," Vigneault said. "I think we've gone through a tough part, but I wouldn't call it 'weathering the storm.' There's not a road way to play and a home way to play. There's the right way. So I expect our team to get better results than what we've seen so far."

But the Rangers coach still admits there's no place like home. Especially after six weeks on the road.

"I've been waiting for this day for quite some time," Vigneault said. "I'm happy it's here."

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