Heading over to practice today. Will have audio and video and stuff from there as the Rangers get back to work preparing for Philadelphia.
Josh Thomson, 26, is going to fill in for me at practice Wednesday, while we do a Live Chat right here at 11.
Then Josh, 26, and I will cover Game 1 Thursday night. Prior to that we will preview the series.
The predictions contest is now closed. No more entries, please.
In the meantime, here’s a column I wrote for The Journal News and Lohud.com about the Rangers, where they were, what they endured, and how they got to this point:
By Rick Carpiniello
This all started May 29 of last year. That was the day Rangers general manager Glen Sather fired coach John Tortorella for the old cliché “failing to attain the goal of winning a Stanley Cup.”
And, yeah, there were other reasons — the grating on his players; his wearing, black-and-blue style of play; a lousy power play, and an even lousier public persona.
On that day, everything changed.
Here we are, a little less than 11 months later, and the Rangers enter the playoffs a slight first-round favorite over the Philadelphia Flyers, after a 96-point season got them the second seed in the NHL’s Metropolitan Division.
Doesn’t it make you scratch your head and wonder how this happened?
First there was the odd “trade” of coaches, Tortorella going to Vancouver, where he would bomb out, and Alain Vigneault coming east after consecutive playoff flame-outs in Vancouver.
Then Vigneault was handcuffed by a schedule that included an ill-advised preseason camp in Banff, Alberta, an entire preseason on the road and a season-opening, nine-game trip necessitated by the renovations to the Garden. Not the ideal way for a new coaching staff to implement a new system, or even do much evaluating.
On top of that was the very legitimate question of whether the Rangers had the necessary skill to play that “Western” up-tempo system. It sure wasn’t hard to tell they were sorely lacking in muscle, team toughness and size.
A 3-6 trip, during which Rick Nash was lost to a concussion, was followed by a home-opening loss. The Rangers bounced back but were never able to go more than a game over NHL-.500 through 44 games.
It was bleak. They were having trouble scoring in Vigneault’s style, too. Henrik Lundqvist was having the worst season of his career, during which he received a king’s ransom in a new contract. Marc Staal suffered another concussion. Nash was playing on the perimeter. Even Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh were inconsistent early on. Chris Kreider started the season in the minors, had a great stretch, followed it with a bad one, then suffered a hand injury that required surgery.
Two positives did emerge. One was a better power play under assistant Scott Arniel, though that fizzled, too — the Rangers have been awful with the man advantage since late January. The other was the emergence of what should have been the third line — Derick Brassard between Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot — as the team’s best trio.
Then came this: The Rangers were forced into trading the player everybody thought would be their captain for the long term. Ryan Callahan — the Rangers’ heart and soul, the poster boy for everything good about the way they played, and the type of player they sorely needed — overplayed, by a lot, his hand at contract negotiating.
Worse, the player for whom they traded Callahan (plus a first-round pick and conditional second-round pick) — Martin St. Louis — scored once in 18 games for the Rangers after scoring 29 goals in 63 games for Tampa Bay. If you knew that would happen, you’d imagine a dumpster fire of a stretch drive, right?
The Rangers did become beasts of the road, leading the Eastern Conference in road wins by going 22-8-2 away from the Garden after the 3-6 start. Late in the season, they finally showed some all-for-one pushback. They went 29-13-3 from Dec. 20 on, including a 9-2-2 finish. They got here, even if it’s hard to explain how.
Now they open the playoffs at home, where they won 20 and lost 21.
Vigneault, who was 1-8 in his last two playoff series with Vancouver, and his team still have so much more to prove.
Photo by Getty Images.