Henrik Lundqvist stars, but Rangers' trip to Cup Final a group effort

Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers celebrates after defeating the Montreal Canadiens with his teammates during game six of the Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, May 29, 2014 in New York City. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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Arthur Staple Arthur Staple

Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football.

On Dec. 22, just before the NHL's three-day Christmas break, the Rangers had a 16-18-2 record. They were three points out of third, the closest playoff spot, in the Metro Division. They had scored 85 goals in 36 games, more than only two other teams in the league.

And that actually was an improvement over the start of the season, when the Rangers were 3-7 and looked completely disjointed in the first few games under Alain Vigneault (including a three-game stretch in which they were outscored 20-5).

So after the Rangers' 1-0 win over the Canadiens on Thursday night -- the victory that propelled them into the Stanley Cup Final -- Vigneault was asked what he would have said to someone who predicted in late October that the Rangers would be here, awaiting the start of the final series.

"I probably would have said, 'What are you smoking?' " Vigneault said, laughing. "We came along in the second half and found a way to get in [to the playoffs]."

There is no great mystery as to how the Rangers found their bearings after the calendar turned to 2014. Henrik Lundqvist, with his mind finally at ease once he signed his seven-year, $59.5-million extension in early December, returned to his Vezina Trophy form after his worst stretch of play . . . well, ever, to hear him tell it.

"I think it was my toughest start in my career, my 12, 13 years as a pro, if I combine the Sweden years," he said after Thursday night's win. "So it's definitely a tough test. But it feels better when you turn it around and good things start to happen. It's been a great ride so far, especially the second half of the season. It's been a lot of fun to be around the guys, that's for sure."

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There is something to be said for those guys, and not just the ones who have been around the past few seasons such as ever-improving Ryan McDonagh and playoff performer Brian Boyle. Glen Sather and Jeff Gorton brought in the right mix of veterans before and during the season, juggling the roster just so for Vigneault.

Dominic Moore's decision to resume his career with his original team has proved to be a terrific move on a one-year deal. Ditto Benoit Pouliot, whose mercurial play at times has been grounded by timely scoring.

Sather and Gorton sold very low on Michael Del Zotto, their one-time budding star defenseman, sending him to the Predators for Kevin Klein. Klein has been more than serviceable as the No. 5 defenseman. His partner for Game 6 was Raphael Diaz, another late addition via trade who has played only three playoff games but was a crucial standby when John Moore was suspended for Game 6.

Of course, the biggest change came hours before the March 5 trade deadline, when the Rangers obtained Martin St. Louis from the Lightning for Ryan Callahan and what is now the Rangers' next two No. 1 picks.

It seemed like a steep price to pay at the time, given that St. Louis wanted to join only the Rangers and his split with Tampa Bay seemed irreversible.

But now it seems like genius. St. Louis was unremarkable in 19 regular-season games but, as promised, has been a true leader in so many ways this postseason.

Rick Nash, counted on as the go-to scorer his whole career, has become merely one of the guys this postseason -- to everyone's benefit. Despite his big contract, Nash has excelled at the work-ethic side of the game in the playoffs, and the Rangers' four-line balance has been a huge factor.

"There were some down moments this year, to be honest," said Brad Richards, who has stepped into the leadership role held by Callahan and thrived in it. "It took a while to get everybody going. It was a testament to the group. Just kind of mirrored our whole season, our playoffs, everything. It seemed like we never let it get to us too much. We lost it, we kept battling, and figured it out. We figured it out to get a chance to win the Cup."

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