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Rangers coach Alain Vigneault takes loss hard but still believes

New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault talks

New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault talks to the media on Monday, June 1, 2015 at the MSG Training Center after being eliminated from the playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Credit: Andrew Theodorakis

GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Alain Vigneault usually is the coolest cat in Rangers-land, a guy who reveals little to reporters -- especially during the playoffs -- and seems to operate above the emotional fray.

That was what made his demeanor so striking Monday on the day the Rangers parted ways for the summer.

With three days to digest what went wrong in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, most players seemed to have gotten over the worst of the disappointment. They struck hopeful, or at least philosophical, tones with reporters.

But that is how professional athletes must be to survive and thrive. Short memories and positive vibes are essential.

Coaches are more like you and me -- prone to longer mourning periods over what might have been.

"It's been a very emotional and challenging last couple of days for our group, for myself,'' Vigneault said after a day of debriefings with players before they began another relatively short offseason.

"After Game 7, my youngest daughter was crying for hours and I couldn't get her to stop. Everybody that was close to me, and myself, we all felt that we were going to move on, and it's been hard to handle.

"But it's life, and it's the cards that we've been dealt, and now we need to pick up the pieces, pick up those cards and find a way to become a better team and give ourselves a better chance next year.''

By the way, Vigneault's youngest daughter, Janie, is 22. But that's OK. Fans presumably would like to know the people closest to the team they follow feel their pain.

The coach clearly did. Even his hair seemed less orderly than usual as he answered questions.

"We're still in the midst of trying to sort out exactly what happened and why it happened,'' he said before alluding to the team's original goal of reaching a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final. "We were one period away from achieving that goal and unfortunately we didn't get it done. We had in that seventh game, I don't want to say subpar performances, but we didn't have the type of performances that permit you to win that game from our group.''

Vigneault must share in the blame for that, considering his "group'' failed to score at home after May 18 -- a 145-minute, 43-second streak that now will continue into October -- against an opponent that used an identical strategy to win Games 5 and 7 by 2-0 scores.

But he also must be given credit for steering a talented ship through a long regular season as the best team in hockey and then on another run into deep spring.

The challenge in 2015-16 will be convincing a team that busted its collective tush to win the Presidents' Trophy that home-ice advantage matters, even though in the NHL, it mostly doesn't.

"Next year, it's the restart button,'' he said.

Easier said than done. The good news is that the core of the team will return intact, with a mix of veteran leaders and rising talent, plus Henrik Lundqvist in goal in his late prime.

But do the skillful, finesse-oriented Rangers have what it takes to win when it matters most?

"I think our players have proven time and time again that in big games, they can step up and do it,'' Vigneault said.

He bent over backward not to criticize Rick Nash, by far the team's leading scorer in the regular season, for another less-than-dynamic playoff performance, insisting he does other things well and has improved each year.

Still, during a meeting with Nash on Monday, Vigneault emphasized how important postseason contributions from him are.

As you would expect, players to a man expressed confidence that this era of Rangers has what it takes to go beyond consistently good to great.

So did Vigneault. The final question from the media about the Rangers' season was whether this team has a Cup in it. His answer:

"I've got a good belief we've got a group of young players at the right age with the right experience around them. We've been knocking at the door, getting close to the hump there and almost getting ready to get fully over.

"So if you ask me: Do I believe in this group? I would say my answer is yes.''

See you in September!

New York Sports