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Leonard: Rangers gain quiet confidence, have eyes on ‘prize'

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The Rangers lost to the Kings in overtime, but they’ve been turning their game around and are still thinking about the Stanley Cup.Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

The Rangers lost to the Kings in overtime, but they’ve been turning their game around and are still thinking about the Stanley Cup.

Maybe Dan Girardi only made the comment out of habit. Regardless, his words made a statement.

MSG Network’s Al Trautwig congratulated Girardi on playing in his 700th NHL game during the first intermission of Friday night’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Kings, the only match of the last six that the rolling Rangers have not won.

Girardi answered: “That’s all well and good, but we’re still looking for that prize at the end of the year.”

Oh, right. The Stanley Cup. Everyone almost forgot.

The Rangers have not discussed the Cup publicly as often throughout this tumultuous season as they did last year. They haven’t been asked about it as frequently, either, after any championship aspirations appeared to fade from view in a dark December.

But Girardi’s remark was a revealing window into the improving confidence of the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners, who are 13-6-2 in their last 21 games, 5-0-1 in their last six, third in the Eastern Conference and climbing as Wednesday night’s showdown with the reigning champion Chicago Blackhawks arrives.

Internally, the Blueshirts (32-18-6, 70 points) have not forgotten what drives them: the “prize” that has eluded them through losses in two Eastern Conference finals and one Cup Final over the last four years, the trophy that the dominant Blackhawks have won three times in the last six seasons.

June may represent this core’s final opportunity to validate and immortalize this historic stretch of hockey, but they haven’t stopped envisioning winning it, even if they’re not talking about it as brashly.

“This is a smart group, and there’s no doubt that the organization and the coaching staff, we believe in this group,” Alain Vigneault said Tuesday in Greenburgh of the Rangers’ lofty aspirations. “But at some point we have to deliver, ya know? I know we want that pressure. We want to be one of the teams that people say (about us), ‘They can win the Cup.’ But that has to be in the back of our heads. In the front of our heads has to be what we need to do today to get better and to win the next game.”

Vigneault said he brought up the Stanley Cup in the fall’s “initial meeting,” with special meaning for his team’s long-tenured core of captain Ryan McDonagh, alternate captains Girardi, Marc Staal and Derek Stepan, and Henrik Lundqvist.

However, Staal said that since then the Rangers haven’t dwelled on those heavy expectations and may be better in the long run for it – even if December’s slide was a major reason why the Cup talk has been curbed.

“This year I think we’re more focused on getting our game where it needs to be and getting in stride,” Staal said. “From day one, our focus has been on getting better rather than focusing on the Cup.”

The extra urgency of the Cup chase, though, is beginning to permeate the locker room. Defenseman Keith Yandle, a subject of frequent trade rumors leading up to the Feb. 29 deadline, told the Daily News he “absolutely” wants to be a part of something special this year in the Big Apple.

Now McDonagh is ready to return to the lineup Wednesday night after a four-game absence due to a concussion. Staal could miss the game because his wife is due with the couple’s second child, so either Dan Boyle (flu) or a Hartford call-up may take his place. But the big picture looks brighter.

“When you start the year, your main focus is the Cup,” Yandle said. “But after the All-Star break, you start to realize it’s close, and that taste is in your mouth more than it was at the beginning of the year.”

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