Rangers' Road to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final
The great coach swap
After a turbulent 2012-13 season that ended with a second-round playoff ouster by Boston and the firing of combative coach John Tortorella, a new era dawned at New York's famed Radio City Music on June 21 when the Rangers announced the hiring of Alain Vigneault, who had been canned four weeks earlier by Vancouver -- which later hired Tortorella. A considerably calmer bench boss, Vigneault, who had guided the Canucks to two Presidents' trophies, six division titles and a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2011, was brought in to clear the air and free up the Rangers' offense after four-plus years of Tortorella's low-scoring, defense-oriented system. The transition would be a bumpy one at first.
The long road home
Due the completion of a three-year, $1 billion renovation of Madison Square Garden, the Rangers were forced to open the 2013-14 season with a nine-game road trip that lasted from Oct. 3 to 24 and included a stop in Los Angeles, where the Rangers grabbed their first win by beating their future Stanley Cup Final foes, the Kings. The Blueshirts returned for their opener at the World's Most Famous Arena with a record of 3-6-0 and lost to Montreal, 2-0. Home ice would not be very hospitable early on. During a nine-game homestand in December, they went 3-4-2, leaving them a mediocre 18-18-2.
John Tortorella returns
The Rangers' former coach, whose life with Vancouver went no more smoothly than it did in New York (he was sacked after the season), revisited MSG on Nov. 30. That night, he was serenaded with chants by the fans and tormented by Rangers forward Chris Kreider (not pictured), who had spent quite a bit of time in Tortorella's pooch parlor. Kreider's hat trick spearheaded New York's 5-2 win over the Canucks.
The King's new contract
Henrik Lundqvist's impending unrestricted free agency after the season was a source of distraction and whispers that the King might be planning to leave. Contract talks went slowly and Lundqvist's play seemed affected by it. The controversy hit a peak when the former Vezina Trophy-winner was a healthy scratch in consecutive games, but on Dec. 4 he agreed to a seven-year, $59.5 million extension that firmly established him as the NHL's highest-paid goalie. "I know there's been some speculation," he told reporters. "But from the heart, it was never an option to leave this club." Added GM Glen Sather: "So it's up to you, Henrik ?now just carry us on your shoulders."
The boiling point
As the Rangers struggled to adapt to their new coach, who later admitted that he needed time to figure out his players, the team's offense sputtered to 27th in the 30-team NHL. Vigneault fumed after Washington's rookie goalie Philip Grubauer stifled his Rangers, 4-1, at MSG on Dec. 8, handing them their third loss in their last five games. The Blueshirts then held a players-only meeting, one of several they convened in the early going, to seek an answer to their woes. "It's not going to come from anyone else except from the 22 guys in here," center Derek Stepan said. "We have to find a way to grab it."
Ignition at last
With Henrik Lundqvist still struggling despite his new deal, and their disappointing nine-game homestand nearing its end, the Rangers caught a spark when rookie backup goalie Cam Talbot started against Minnesota on Dec. 22 and produced a solid 24-save effort in a 4-1 win. The Blueshirts then took off on 16-6-1 run, with Talbot playing well in occasional starts and the team's power play coming alive. By the Olympic break in early February, the Rangers would own a more than respectable 32-24-3 mark.
Battle in the Bronx I
One day after the Kings and Ducks had skated in the balmy, 60-degree confines of L.A.'s Dodger Stadium, the Rangers met their cross-Hudson River rivals, the New Jersey Devils, on a frigid Sunday afternoon, Jan. 26, in New York's famed Yankee Stadium. New York was technically the visiting team, but it was more than well-supported by the sellout crowd of 50,105, which saw the Rangers rally to demolish the Devils, 7-3.
Battle in the Bronx II
Three nights later, the Rangers again "went on the road" to the House That Ruth Built where the wind chill was in single digits, but it didn't cool off the Blueshirts, who edged their other area rival, the New York Islanders, 2-1, on Dan Carcillo's goal at 4:36 of the third period. The win left the Rangers' all-time mark in outdoor games a perfect 3-0. "They're a ton of fun," said New York defenseman Marc Staal. "I could play in 50 of these in a year. Maybe not 50. Forty."
A test of medal
The Rangers sent seven players to the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia: Henrik Lundqvist and Carl Hagelin (Team Sweden); Rick Nash (Canada); Ryan Callahan, Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan (USA); and Mats Zuccarello (Norway). Nash (not pictured; that's Sidney Crosby) came home with the gold medal after Canada beat Lundqvist (in net) and Hagelin, 3-0, in the championship game.
Martin St. Louis arrives
The post-Olympic stretch drive began on Feb. 27, and as the Rangers stumbled to 4-5-1 start, GM Glen Sather made a major move before the March 5 trade deadline by sending captain Ryan Callahan (who was set to become a UFA), and two draft picks to Tampa Bay for veteran winger Martin St. Louis, 38, a six-time All-Star, two-time scoring champion, and Stanley Cup winner with current Ranger Brad Richards, with whom he played on the Lightning. (New York also acquired defenseman Raphael Diaz from Vancouver for a fifth-rounder.) It took St. Louis time to find his game on Broadway, but he welcomed the big stage. "I know this is going to be a challenge for me, but I love challenges and I like to rise to the occasion," he said after his Ranger debut against Toronto.
Grounding the Flyers
After finishing the regular schedule on a 12-6-2 run that earned them second place in the Metropolitan Division, the Rangers met the rival Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs. The series proved to be a see-saw battle with the teams swapping wins, but home ice advantage proved decisive. New York took Game 7 by a 2-1 score at MSG after Dan Carcillo and Benoit Pouliot tallied in the second period and Henrik Lundqvist made the lead stand up.
Inspiration from tragedy
After falling into a three-games-to-one hole against the favored Penguins in the second round, the sluggish Rangers were shaken by the news that Martin St. Louis's mother, France, had died suddenly of a heart attack. St. Louis went home for the wake, but returned for Game 5, which the Rangers won decisively, 5-1. "We flipped a switch," winger Mats Zuccarello told SI. "I believe it was each guy saying, Marty is here. What excuse do I have? I know he inspired me." In Game 6, played on Mother's Day, it was only fitting that St. Louis would open the scoring 3:34 into New York's 3-1 win and turn MSG into a cauldron of emotion. From there, the Rangers never looked back, prevailing 2-1 as Henrik Lundqvist made 35 saves while setting an NHL mark with his fifth straight Game 7 victory.
After the Rangers attended the funeral of Martin St. Louis's mother, they took on the Canadiens In the third round where yet another victim of tragedy -- forward Dominic Moore, who had lost his wife to cancer in January 2013 -- turned out to be a hero for New York. Facing a possible Game 7 in Montreal, where Henrik Lundqvist had historically struggled, the Rangers were rescued by Moore, whose second period goal was the game's only tally, and their stellar netminder, whose acrobatic blocker save for the ages on Montreal's Thomas Vanek in the same frame left MSG in a frenzy. "It's an unbelievable feeling," Lundqvist said. "But what took us there is the entire team really stepped up in key moments throughout the year, especially the playoffs."
Twenty years after the Rangers made a storied run to the franchise's first Stanley Cup since 1940, a Blueshirts brigade returned to final where it would meet the deep, rugged and talented Kings. Though the underdogs, the Rangers seemed to have a touch of magic working for them, like the Mark Messier-led crew had in 1994. <bold>Read Allan Muir's Stanley Cup Final breakdown.</bold>