Just as they did the two seasons prior, the New York Rangers began their season with a long road trip because of the renovation project at Madison Square Garden. Despite beating the Los Angeles Kings, they went 3-6 on the trip, and a loss in the home opener to the Montreal Canadiens had them buried in the standings early.
It may not seem like much, but many NHL teams would have fizzled after that kind of start, especially when long-term contracts for both the star goalie and the team captain are question marks. The Rangers weren’t even treading water above the .500 mark until mid-January. It was reminiscent of many recent rosters that bowed out during the second round of the playoffs — at best.
Fast forward to June, the Rangers are set to play the Stanley Cup Finals against the Kings. Their captain Ryan Callahan was traded, their star goalie Henrik Lundqvist is fresh off a dominant shutout that included a couple of jaw-dropping saves, and head coach Alain Vigneault looks like a savant.
In his first year, Vigneault has transformed a slow-paced, defense-first team into a speedy, proactive, beautiful hockey club. They may have acquired Martin St. Louis at the trade deadline, but replacing John Tortorella with Vigneault was the smartest change the Rangers have made in years.
Gone are the 40 blocked shots per game and the unimaginative dumps and chases. They’ve been replaced with aggressive stretch passes and relentless pressure in the offensive zone. The Rangers were a top-five possession team all year long. That would have been inconceivable in the Tortorella era.
The Rangers’ Eastern Conference-clinching Game 6 against Montreal was a perfect example. Up 1-0 headed into the third period, the Blueshirts came out aggressively and dominated puck control for the entire 20 minutes. Instead of sitting back and preventing shots from getting to Lundqvist, they pushed into the offensive zone and didn’t allow the Habs to get shots off at all.
The score stayed 1-0, but it was still one of the Rangers’ most impressive performances of the postseason.
Vigneault has correctly used his roster’s speed advantage. It’s made the Rangers a dynamic offensive team and eased the pressure on a defense that, despite having an elite top pair in Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, lacks depth. This has arguably been Lundqvist’s worst playoffs, but their new style of play has gotten them further than they did the entire Tortorella era.
The Finals will obviously be the Rangers’ toughest test yet. Kings coach Darryl Sutter is both a genius and a miracle worker. He worked similar magic to rally his team back from a 3-0 series deficit in round 1 against the San Jose Sharks and to turn Marian Gaborik into a playoff goal machine. But Sutter already had a great team with a great philosophy prior to this season. Vigneault’s work this year turned the Rangers into what they are today.
All the pieces are in place for him to win his first Stanley Cup. After shoddy goaltending from Roberto Luongo let him down in 2011, he has a perennial Vezina candidate backing him up now. If the Rangers can keep up their high-possession play, Vigneault will get to raise the cup that he deserves.