Rangers took long and winding journey to Cup Final

Chris Kreider of the Rangers celebrates after scoring

Chris Kreider of the Rangers celebrates after scoring a second-period goal against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals in the Stanley Cup playoffs in Montreal on Saturday, May 17, 2014. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Bruce Bennett

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The journey to the Rangers' first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years began in a community rink in the mountainous town of Banff, Alberta, where the players and the new coaching staff spent several days in late September. Then they stumbled to a 3-6 record during a brutal road trip to start the season and dropped the home opener at Madison Square Garden.

The transition from John Tortorella's volatile personality and coaching style to a calmer Alain Vigneault and his faster-paced system was arduous. It was frustrating.

"We had meetings all the time," Brad Richards recalled, "among ourselves, with the coaches, trying to sort things out, how to adjust. And we were missing some guys and had added some others."

Captain Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin, two top forwards, were recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Power forward Rick Nash suffered a concussion in the third game and missed the next 17. Backup goaltender Martin Biron, losing his edge, decided to retire. Center Dominic Moore, returning to the NHL after sitting out the previous season following the death of his wife, and wingers Benoit Pouliot and Mats Zuccarello had slow starts. Defenseman Michael Del Zotto and other blueliners had problems with assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson's defensive strategy.

But things settled in. Goalie Cam Talbot, summoned from Hartford for his NHL debut, won four games in November. Chris Kreider, also called up, provided size and speed. Nash and Derick Brassard started scoring. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, allowed to open up his game, produced. Henrik Lundqvist refocused after signing a long-term contract Dec. 4.

"He changed, a lot, the way we play," Lundqvist said of Vigneault, "and it took the first couple months for us to adjust, and for me to adjust. But he was very patient and calm and understood the process for us to get there."

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Around Christmas, players said, the Rangers finally jelled. They beat the Wild, Maple Leafs, Lightning and Panthers and went 10-4-1 in January, including wins over the Islanders and Devils in the outdoor series at Yankee Stadium.

But the biggest tipping point came March 5 when Callahan, a pending unrestricted free agent, turned down a six-year offer and president and general manager Glen Sather traded him and draft picks to Tampa Bay for veteran scorer Martin St. Louis.

St. Louis struggled for weeks but the team kept winning, thanks to timely scoring from Richards, Nash, Brassard, Hagelin, McDonagh, Zuccarello and Derek Stepan and the play of Lundqvist. The Rangers clinched a playoff spot April 7.

In the first round, the Rangers edged the Flyers, winning Game 7 at the Garden. But in the conference semifinals, they fell behind the Penguins 3-1, and when the plane landed in Pittsburgh for Game 5, the entire team learned of the death of St. Louis' mother, France. St. Louis flew to Montreal but returned the next day. The inspired team won an emotional Game 5, then Game 6 in New York on Mother's Day -- with St. Louis scoring the first goal.

The Rangers ousted the host Penguins in Game 7 and went toe-to-toe with the Canadiens in the Eastern Conference finals, advancing after being rocked in Montreal in Game 5. Displaying a resilience and work ethic that had carried them through the hardships of the season, they blanked the Canadiens at home, 1-0, in Game 6.

"There were some down moments this year, to be honest," Richards said. "It took a while to get everybody going. 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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