GREENBURGH, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Alain Vigneault sat comfortably inside a media tent outside the New York Rangers suburban practice facility after a good on-ice team workout.
He still didn’t know then who he would be coaching against in the Stanley Cup finals, but he didn’t seem overly concerned about the uncertainty, either, on Sunday.
Hours later the mystery ended when the Los Angeles Kings claimed the Western Conference title with a 5-4 road overtime victory against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, who nearly erased a 3-1 series deficit to set up an Original Six finals matchup.
“It’s going to have to be our best hockey of the year,” Vigneault said.
The Kings are no stranger to Vigneault, who is in his first season behind the Rangers bench. Los Angeles eliminated Vigneault’s Vancouver Canucks in the first round in 2012 en route to winning the Stanley Cup for the only time in franchise history. The Kings are making their third trip to the finals.
New York went 1-1 against Los Angeles in the regular season.
“We have to remember what got us here, and play to our strengths and play our game,” Vigneault said.
The Rangers returned to practice Sunday after having two days off following their stirring 1-0 win over Montreal at home on Thursday in Game 6.
After winning each of the first two rounds in seven games, New York was happy not to have to make a return trip up north for another winner-take-all contest.
“It helps when you can wrap a series — not just physically, but mentally,” said 38-year-old forward Martin St. Louis, one of only a handful of Rangers with previous finals experience. “To play Game 7s, they’re fun but they’re stressful. I am glad we didn’t have to do that with Montreal.”
As good as it was to rest their weary bodies after 20 postseason games, getting a mental break was every bit as important this deep into the grind.
The Rangers are the first team to reach the finals after requiring seven games in each of the first two rounds. Los Angeles is the second, having gone seven games in all three rounds. New York hadn’t gotten this far since winning the Stanley Cup back in 1994 under captain Mark Messier.
“We are welcoming the rest, and regrouping,” said forward Brad Richards, a 2004 Stanley Cup champion along with St. Louis with Tampa Bay. “We’ve played a lot of hockey since March 1. It’s good for our team, but whether it’s an advantage or not, I don’t know.
“We’d rather go in with a little more rest and preparation than not.”
The Rangers will practice again on Monday before flying to Los Angeles. The intensity will get ratcheted up again Wednesday night in Game 1.
Even though New York was the first to claim a spot in the finals, many have already written off the Rangers as severe underdogs against the Kings.
“I feel like when you get to the Stanley Cup finals, you have a 50-50 chance of winning,” Richards said. “It’s the way I’ve seen it my whole career.”
Richards also experienced this season what it is like to play under Vigneault, a much more serene leader than his Rangers predecessor John Tortorella, who coached Richards, St. Louis and the rest of the Lightning to the title a decade ago.
Tortorella was fired after the Rangers were eliminated by Boston in the second round last year.
“It’s easy to compare to Torts and how Torts was,” Richards said. “But the guy before, Tom Renney, from the outside he didn’t look like he raised his voice a lot or was yelling a lot. Every guy is different.
“(Vigneault) still does a lot of things any other coach does. I hear him on the bench quite a bit, yelling and moving around back there. His voice carries. He’s a coach and he’s trying to get the best out of his players and win. For sure there are times his mood changes.”
But Vigneault has no objection to being referred to as calm and laid-back. He doesn’t consider himself a pushover, but that doesn’t mean every rule is set in stone.
He even made changes back in the preseason through his open-door policy. Vigneault had always mandated that locker room music be turned off at 6 p.m. for a 7 p.m. start with 6:30 p.m. warmups.
Defenseman Dan Girardi asked that the music time be pushed ahead to 6:15, and soon after a 6:30 shut off was asked for and granted.
“I said, ‘OK fine. If that’s how you’re going to get into your zone, then go ahead and do it,'” Vigneault said “You’ve got to understand where your players are coming from. You figure out what motivates them. Each player has to be handled differently. It takes a little bit of time, and it took a little bit of time to figure this group out.”
Now he is seeing them play at their highest level at the perfect time. Vigneault called Thursday’s clinching win over Montreal his team’s best of the playoffs. They just need to channel that for one more series.
Three straight days of practice for the first time in the postseason can only help meet that goal.
“I thought our pace was good,” Richards said of Sunday’s practice. “Everybody was trying to pick the pace up and push each other to practice as hard as we have all year. That pace in Game 1 at the start is going to be higher than anything we’ve seen. We were just trying to simulate that and be ready.”
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