NEW YORK, N.Y. - Eight months ago, first-year Rangers coach Alain Vigneault could never have imagined he would now be behind the bench for New York's first Stanley Cup finals appearance in 20 years.
The mere suggestion made him laugh Thursday night after the Rangers advanced with a 1-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals,
"In October? I probably would have said, 'What are you smoking?'" he said.
Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of New York's firing of blustery coach John Tortorella, who was dismissed after a second-round elimination. One year earlier, Tortorella led the Rangers to the conference finals, but they couldn't get past New Jersey.
Vigneault was hired last June after he was let go by Vancouver. He wasn't starting from scratch with the Rangers, but no one predicted the heights he and his team have quickly achieved.
New York began this season with a nine-game road trip because of major renovations at Madison Square Garden. When the Rangers finally limped home, they were 3-6 and near the bottom of both the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference.
They got over .500 with a New Year's Eve victory at Florida and improved to a 45-31-6 record for a second-place divisional finish.
"We worked our way and improved how we played," said Vigneault, who coaches with a much calmer style than Tortorella. "Ever since we've gotten in, all the series have been so competitive and so hard-fought. We've gotten the goaltending we need and we've found ways to win."
That recipe has continued to fuel their run in the playoffs. Now they are in the finals for the 11th time and are seeking their fifth title. Chicago or Los Angeles will be the opponent.
The Rangers edged Philadelphia by two points in the division, which secured home-ice advantage in the first-round matchup between the clubs. That was critical because after the Flyers stayed alive in Game 6 with a 5-2 win in which star goalie Henrik Lundqvist was chased from the net, the Rangers hosted Game 7 ??? and advanced with a tense 2-1 victory.
Lundqvist led the way then, carried them through the second round against Pittsburgh after the Rangers fell into a 3-1 hole, and punctuated New York's trip to the finals with his franchise-record-tying ninth playoff shutout when the Rangers knocked out Montreal.
That clincher also came after a clunker. Lundqvist was driven out in the second period of Game 5 in Montreal after allowing four goals in a 7-4 loss.
"It was my toughest (season) start in my career," said Lundqvist, who has spent nine seasons in the NHL. "It feels better when you turn it around and good things start to happen. It's been a great ride so far, especially the second half."
Lundqvist leaped in jubilation several times when time ran out Thursday. It was a combination of joy, relief, and pure satisfaction to finally clear this major hurdle two decades in the making for the Rangers.
The series victory was New York's first in fewer than seven games since 2008.
The last time they got this far, Mark Messier was making guarantees as captain as the Rangers ended a 54-year curse without a Cup title. Compared to that, 20 years is a mere drop in the bucket.
"You never know what can happen in a year," said Brad Richards, one of three assistant captains. "We felt confident going into the season. We all know now if you just get in and get hot ... but we had the start that we did. It got a little shaky there for a while.
"It took a while to get everybody going. It was a testament to the group.
" We lost it, we kept battling, and figured it out to get a chance to win the Cup."
One move that solidified this post-season run was the trade-deadline deal that brought Martin St. Louis to New York from Tampa Bay for Ryan Callahan, a rare swap of team captains.
St. Louis got only one goal and seven assists in 19 regular-season games with the Rangers, but he is tied for the club lead with 13 playoff points and six goals. His overtime score in Game 4 against Montreal gave New York a 3-1 edge.
His on-ice production is only part of the story, of course. The team was galvanized following the unexpected death of St. Louis' mother at the low point of the Pittsburgh series. The Rangers are 7-2 since.
"It's been a tough year for me. This makes it pretty cool," said St. Louis, who won the Stanley Cup with Richards and the Lightning in 2004 when Tortorella was their coach. "Being somewhere for 13, 14 years and changing teams, and to get a chance to play in the Stanley Cup finals with these teammates who have been nothing but great through my tough time, it makes it even more special."