By Steve Silverman
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The pain of losing in the Stanley Cup Final will dissipate, but it will never fade away completely.
It doesn’t matter that the Los Angeles Kings were the better and more powerful team. Three of their wins were decided in overtime, and that tells you how close the Rangers were coming to having their own celebration in the Canyon of Heroes instead of having to watch the Kings celebrate in Hollywood.
What makes it even worse is that the Rangers have no guarantees that they will be back in the mix again next year. It’s a good thing that they play in the Eastern Conference, because the West was a gauntlet this season and will likely be the same again next year.
While anything can happen in the playoffs, the Rangers appeared to get a couple of major breaks along the way this season. The first was the Montreal Canadiens’ upset of the Boston Bruins in the second round. The Bruins play the same kind of hockey in the East that the Kings do in the West. They might not be quite as accomplished as the Kings, but they are close and they are not going anywhere. If the Rangers had been forced to play Boston, their season might not have gotten past the Conference finals.
The other break was the injury suffered by Carey Price of the Canadiens in the first game of the conference finals. Price was the Canadiens’ best player, and while backup Dustin Tokarski shocked observers with how well he played, the Rangers were not going to lose the goaltending matchup. Not with Henrik Lundqvist rising to the occasion when the money was on the table.
If Price was in the net for the Habs, Montreal might have found a way to win Game 6 at the Garden and then take it back to the Bell Center for Game 7. Despite the Rangers’ victories there in Games 1 and 2, that would not have been an ideal situation.
Questions about the makeup of next year’s team will be answered during free agency, the draft and training camp. However, while some big names will likely disappear – Brad Richards almost certainly will be bought out – the Rangers have a strong base with players like Martin St. Louis, Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin, Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Lundqvist under contract.
Rick Nash is also under contract for the next four seasons, but that may not be a good thing. Nash does not play to his size and supposed strength in the biggest games. He competes hard and he wants it badly, but he almost always ends up losing the one-on-one puck battles along the boards and in the corners. He didn’t score a point in the Stanley Cup Final and his three goals in 25 playoff games were not nearly enough.
Glen Sather and Vigneault will probably end up keeping him, but that doesn’t mean they really want him.
He did a superb job from start to finish this season, and he had minefields to negotiate nearly every step of the way. During training camp, he had to adjust to a new team after seven years with the Vancouver Canucks.
He did not have a lot of time to adjust to his new surroundings, because the biggest job he had to do was make his players realize they were no longer under psychological control of John Tortorella.
While Tortorella certainly was effective when it came to teaching and coaching defensive hockey, the atmosphere was oppressive. Making systematic mistakes under Tortorella was simply unforgivable, and the Rangers rarely played with free spirits.
Vigneault did not coach hockey like that, and while his words and beliefs were diametrically opposed to Tortorella’s from Day 1, it took at least half the season for his players to believe it. Maybe more than that.
Vigneault’s game is about speed, attacking on offense and players getting the most of their abilities. He also was able to challenge his team to get them to rise to the occasion. After a terrible start, this happened regularly during the season. The Rangers won big games and finished with the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference.
That ability came to the fore in the postseason when the Rangers beat the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 and 7 in the first round and again in the decisive Game 6 against Montreal. The Rangers played a perfect game in eliminating the Habs, and that’s the standard that has been set for the future.
Vigneault seemed like a bit of an underachiever prior to coming to the Rangers, because his very talented Canucks team never won the Stanley Cup.
Once he came to New York, he learned how to work his roster and get production from all four lines. He was not afraid to play his third- and fourth-liners at key moments in the postseason.
There may be questions to answer in the offseason, but the Rangers have learned they have the right man behind the bench for the foreseeable future.
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