Alain Vigneault admitted to a series of different emotions before the Rangers boarded their team charter to fly to Phoenix for Thursday's 2013-14 season opener against the Coyotes, and who could blame the new head coach for any of these feelings?
"Ready, nervous, looking forward to it," stated Vigneault following practice on Wednesday. "It's the start of a new season, a new opportunity for this group. They have worked extremely hard since the first day of camp, and our focus and mindset has been real sharp. It's time now to start playing for wins."
That theme of winning was echoed by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who diverted most questions he faced at his locker Wednesday back to the singular topic of winning.
"To get a great feeling in here it just comes down to winning," Lundqvist said. "That's how you build a great atmosphere in the locker room, on the plane when you travel, whatever you do. If you're winning everybody is happy and if you're not, you're not happy. To build team confidence you need to be winning."
The Rangers will be on the road for 11 straight days to start the season, playing in Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Jose, Anahaim, and St. Louis before returning east where road games with the Capitals, Devils, Flyers and Red Wings await.
It is a schedule that could break some teams, but Lundqvist believes the Rangers are strong enough and talented enough to survive the difficult stretch at the outset of the season.
"Finding ways to win early is always important," said Lundqvist. "We have a group in here that can do that. Most of us have been together for a while, we know each other, and the new guys have fit in really well already."
Vigneault confirmed that the lines and defense pairings he has used in practice the past few days will be how he starts the season Thursday night in Phoenix. That means veteran veteran forward Arron Asham and defenseman Justin Falk will be scratched along with team captain Ryan Callahan who is not yet ready to play in a game following off-season shoulder surgery.
"I think he's close," Vigneault said of Callahan. "He's been working extremely hard, put in a lot of time in his rehab, and I'd like to say the past three weeks he hasn't missed a beat. He says (the shoulder) feels 100 percent , so he's getting real close."
The head coach joked that "if I was a betting man I'd think Henrik will start in goal...but who knows?!"
He also added that even though Derek Stepan has looked "really good" during practice this week, there is no way to know for sure how the fourth-year pro will play when he hits the ice for the first time on Thursday after missing all six pre-season games.
Stepan will center veterans Rick Nash and Brad Richards Thursday night.
"After practice I went up to Stepan and he said he felt great," noted Vigneault.