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Vigneault's steady hand leads Rangers to Cup Final

by Dan Rosen

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- To figure out how and why Alain Vigneault became the ideal coach for the New York Rangers this season, first you have to go back to the preseason schedule in late September.

"It might sound stupid, it probably is, but I always say for a 7 o'clock game, 6:30 warm-up, at 6 o'clock my teams always shut the music off in the dressing room," Vigneault said Sunday. "It sounds stupid, but I always shut it. I did the same thing here."

Until he didn't.

Vigneault on Sunday recounted the story of how his rule changed.

He said defenseman Dan Girardi approached him before an exhibition game to let him know the players, particularly goalie Henrik Lundqvist, would prefer to keep the music on rather than adhere to what at the time might have seemed like a rigid rule of 6 o'clock.

"I said, 'OK, we'll go [to] 6:15,'" Vigneault recalled.

That wasn't good enough.

"I want to say a couple of weeks into the season I had a couple more guys come and see me and say, 'Listen, we'd like to play the music until warm-up starts,'" Vigneault said. "I said, 'OK, fine. If that's how you're going to get in your zone then go ahead and do it.'"

Vigneault might be right that his old rule and this story might sound silly, if even stupid, but it matters. This was one of Vigneault's introductions to his new team, his new players. He communicated with them and worked with them, sacrificing a rule he held true to for years for the betterment of them.

All this time later, with the Rangers preparing to play Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday against either the Los Angeles Kings or Chicago Blackhawks, the story serves as yet another example why Vigneault's calm demeanor and consistent approach was the perfect elixir for what was a fragile team after a hard breakup with former coach John Tortorella.

"He's a leader and we bought in," center Derick Brassard said of Vigneault. "We're playing the style he wants us to play. We really enjoy playing for him."

Vigneault admitted he was more emotional as a 23-year-old coach straight out of a 42-game NHL career.

"As you get more experience you sort of figure things out, and you understand when it's time and when it's not time," Vigneault said. "This team, they got to know me and I got to know them."

He said that it took longer than he would have liked. The Rangers were dreadful in October, going 3-7-0 with 35 goals allowed in their first 10 games.

It's fair to wonder how Tortorella, known for his public outbursts and overall emotional behavior, would have reacted to that.

What matters is Vigneault never changed his approach. He kept calm. He kept communicating and reinforcing his system, his style, the way he envisioned the Rangers could play.

He had experience coaching in Montreal and Vancouver. New York wasn't going to break him.

"He handled it very well," center Brad Richards said. "It was a nice calming influence [to have] that probably inside might not have been as easy for him. We righted the ship."

They did shortly before Christmas. The Rangers went 29-13-4 in their final 42 games. They clinched a playoff berth on April 7.

Meanwhile, Vigneault was the same coach that he was early in the season.

"There was never any panic," defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "He never changed our meetings before games, the way we wanted to approach a team and the way we wanted to play. He always tried to reinforce with positive examples and video. It took over naturally for us and now we are able to keep our emotions as a team without having him say or do anything."

Make no mistake, Richards said, Vigneault isn't always the calm, cool and collected coach he comes across as.

"I hear him on the bench quite a bit, yelling and moving around back there," Richards said. "His voice carries. He's a coach. He's trying to get the best out of his players and win. For sure there's times his mood changes."

Not for long, and never in front of the media, where Vigneault is comfortably reticent but willing to banter.

"I think he reflects how we don't get too high or too low," right wing Martin St. Louis said. "He's got a pretty even-keeled personality. I think he reflects how we handle things."

That the music is still playing in the Rangers' dressing room is a testament to the influence of their coach.


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