NEW YORK — The Prince of Wales Trophy sat on the pedestal Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, ready for the captain of the New York Rangers. For the first time in 20 years – for the first time since the days of Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter – the Rangers had won their conference and earned a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
Except the Rangers had no captain. They had traded Ryan Callahan in March. They also had fired their coach, John Tortorella, exactly 365 days before and then replaced him with Alain Vigneault. It had been quite the year.
So after their 1-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final, the alternate captains lined up to shake the hand of NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly – Brad Richards, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi. Then came Henrik Lundqvist, the star goalie who finally had made the big stage.
Then the rest of the team gathered around – Dominic Moore, who sat out the 2012-13 season after losing his wife and scored the lone goal of this game; Martin St-Louis, who arrived in the Callahan deal and lost his mother during these playoffs; Derek Stepan, who played the last two games with a broken jaw and can’t eat solid food for six weeks; all the rest with all their stories. They had been through so much, individually, collectively, and knew they weren’t done yet. They took a quick team picture, then skated off as the fans chanted: “WE WANT THE CUP! WE WANT THE CUP!”
“That’s what I love about this sport,” said Stepan later in the dressing room, surrounded by reporters, wearing his new Eastern Conference champions hat and T-shirt, “how much can happen in a year.”
The Rangers came close two years ago, losing the conference final to the cross-river rival New Jersey Devils – “a bitter loss,” center Brian Boyle said, that “stays with you for a long time.” They weren’t far off last year, losing in the second round to the Boston Bruins. But Tortorella failed to adjust his grinding, shot-blocking style, and he lost the room with his acerbic, hard-charging personality. General manager Glen Sather knew he needed to make a change.
In came Vigneault, who had taken the Vancouver Canucks within a win of the Stanley Cup in 2011 but had been fired after back-to-back first-round losses. The transition was not smooth. The Rangers spent much of training camp and their first nine regular-season games on the road, not exactly ideal conditions to learn a new system. Lundqvist struggled. So did Stepan. Rick Nash suffered a concussion. Callahan and Carl Hagelin were hurt, too. They started 2-6-0, suffering a couple of embarrassing losses – 9-2 at San Jose, 6-0 at Anaheim.
After a 3-2 overtime victory Oct. 26 at Detroit, Richards was defiant. “When people around the team are writing us off, we have to believe,” he said then. “It’s just another step in the process of a long season.” Asked if he really felt the Rangers had been written off, he said: “Yeah. For sure.”
But had someone told Vigneault then that the Rangers would end up in the Stanley Cup final, what would he have thought? “In October?” he said with a laugh. “Probably I would have said, ‘What are you smoking?’ You know, we worked our way. We improved how we played, and we came along in the second half and found a way to get in.”
Vigneault left the dressing room to the players. He gave them more freedom offensively. By mid-season, the Rangers started to hit their stride along with Lundqvist. They became one of the better possession teams in the NHL. When Sather couldn’t sign Callahan to an extension, he traded him to the Tampa Bay Lightning. He paid a high price – two first-round picks, as it turned out, and heart and soul – but he received St-Louis in return. The team kept gelling.
The Rangers finished the regular season 45-31-6 for 96 points, 12th in the NHL, but that was deceiving. They outlasted the Philadelphia Flyers in seven, after taking a 3-2 series lead. They came back and beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven, after facing a 3-1 series deficit. They beat the Canadiens in six – the first time they had won a series in less than seven since 2008. They lost their composure against the Habs as the series heated up, but they got it back when they needed it in Game 6, controlling the play, desperate to end it, wanting to avoid a Game 7 in Montreal.
“You never know what can happen in a year,” Richards said. “There were some down moments this year, to be honest. It took a while to get everybody going. It’s a testament to the group. … Our whole season, our playoffs, everything, it just seemed like we never really let it get to us too much where we lost it. We kept battling and figured it out. We figured it out to get a chance to win the Cup.”
“Yeah, it was definitely a test for us,” Lundqvist said. “I just felt the patience from the entire coaching staff. They understood the process for us to get to where we needed to be to be a successful team. We did change a lot of things going into the season. It was a time where we had to find ourselves a little bit as a group, but also personally. It was the toughest start of my career. It feels even better when you turn it around and good things start to happen.”
The Rangers will be decided underdogs whomever they face in the final – the Los Angeles Kings or the Chicago Blackhawks, the last two Stanley Cup champions. They have to hope that series goes seven and the winner is worn out.
But this is a team with a goaltender who can do amazing things – like the OMG-at-MSG blocker save on a deflection Thursday night – and plays his best in the biggest games. This is a team with an emerging star on defense in Ryan McDonagh, who had 10 points in the conference final. This is a team with veterans like Richards and St-Louis, who won the Cup together in Tampa Bay 10 years ago, and a young core that has been coming together for years. This is a team that can skate, that can forecheck, that generally stays out of the box.
You never know what can happen in a year. You never know what can happen in a series. You never know who will claim the Stanley Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman.
“It’s going to be a great challenge,” Lundqvist said. “We’re going to play against a really good team. It’s for us in the room to remind each other that this is such a special moment that you have to grab it.”
MORE NHL COVERAGE ON YAHOO SPORTS