Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault puts his players though a workout on Wednesday at the team’s practice facility in Greenburgh a day before the start of their first-round series vs. the Pens.
The Rangers enter the playoffs as favorites to win the Stanley Cup for many reasons. They are fast. They have one of the best blue lines and goalies in hockey. They almost won the Cup last year, and they won the Presidents’ Trophy for best regular season record this year.
Those are all good reasons, but the most logical explanation for why this team can win it all lies at the heart of coach Alain Vigneault’s simple but unwavering message that his players follow and do not question:
That they always should strive to improve – and to play the same system – whether they’re coming off a win or a loss, playing at home or on the road, or sitting in first or last place.
“I think our mindset can’t change,” Vigneault said before Game 1 of the first round Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Garden. “You don’t want to look farther ahead than the game that’s in front of you. You have to focus on the process. You can’t focus on the outcome.
“There are parts of our game that need to be applied for us to be good,” the coach added. “We’re a good defensive team. We defend well, and because we defend well, when we get the puck, we can go on the attack quickly. That part of our game has to be there. That’s how we’ve had success. And the mindset that we’ve adopted since day one, since game one, has to stay the same: One game at a time.”
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That’s what was misleading about the Rangers’ team slogan on their warm-up T-shirts on Thursday morning at the Garden: “Barkin’. Change the ending!”
Go figure the significance of “Barkin.'” Captain Ryan McDonagh came closest to explaining it as an expression of their eager approach. He put the word in context of how the Rangers sometimes say teammate Kevin Klein is “barking up the ice” when he joins a rush.
The phrase “change the ending,” though, is more interesting because while it is a clear reference to last spring’s Cup Final loss to the Kings, its long-term outlook does not represent how these Rangers think.
Yes, their goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and they’re not afraid to say it. But they rarely take a shift for granted and they stay in the moment, following the example their coach sets because they trust results will follow.
“I think it starts at the top,” veteran right wing Martin St. Louis said Wednesday afternoon, preparing to chase a second career Stanley Cup. “A.V. (Vigneault) has got a way he wants us to play, and throughout the season when we’re not sharp or getting results, it’s not systematic. Sometimes it’s about execution and work, really, but it’s easier for us knowing we have to play the same way. We know whether we’ve lost eight in a row or won eight in a row, we need to play the game the same way.”
That is what’s most alarming about the Rangers’ approach: They have learned not to be reactive, even though it is human nature to adjust or respond after going through anything, be it positive or negative.
“It’s never as good as you think it is, and it’s never as bad as you think it is,” St. Louis said of how to respond to a win or a loss. “I think we do a good job of trying to earn it every day.”
The Rangers don’t ignore results. They felt a clear need to answer last week’s 3-0 loss to Ottawa with a 4-2 regular season-finale win in Washington. But they stay dedicated to the clichéd ‘process.’
Center Dominic Moore compared the team’s measured approach to striving for improvement in any craft, such as writing, rather than feeling satisfaction with one finished product – like a book – along the way. And Henrik Lundqvist said that’s why it wouldn’t have made sense for him to emerge from last spring’s Cup Final defeat unsatisfied with anything other than another playoff chance.
“You might think like that, but after we lost, you start over and you realize it’s important to appreciate the journey to get there,” Lundqvist said. “If you don’t do that, it’s a waste of life – a waste of hockey.”
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