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Alain Vigneault familiar with coastal clash

Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers celebrates

Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers celebrates after defeating the Montreal Canadiens in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final in the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 29, 2014. Credit: Getty

No need to mince words: The battle between the Eastern Conference champion Rangers and the Western Conference champion Kings will determine -- for hockey, anyway -- not only who will hoist the Stanley Cup but the Best Coast.

Between the Rangers, Islanders and Devils, no other region in North America has three pro teams in the same sport in such close proximity. There is history here, and banners and sacred alumni.

But California has blossomed, with three quality teams up and down the Golden State, and for the first time, it has locally born players, who grew up on rollerblades, being drafted.

This spring, each area's representative will go toe-to-toe with the other, starting Wednesday night at Staples Center before moving to Manhattan and a newly polished gem of an arena, where fans have waited 20 years for another reason to roar like '94.

For the Rangers and first-year coach Alain Vigneault, who succeeded the fired John Tortorella last summer, there were never great expectations. Based on their recent track record, the fans believed that their boys would make the playoffs, but skepticism lingered. Many would have preferred to have the iconic Mark Messier be named coach. Many wanted longtime president and general manager Glen Sather to retire. Didn't happen.

Instead, like the Garden itself, the roster and style of play were transformed. After a dismal start, the adjustment to a faster tempo, to four-line hockey, to shorter shifts, to swarming defense, took hold. Players were shed. Some were added, from locales as disparate as Hartford, Nashville and Tampa.

The Rangers earned a dramatic 2-1 win over the Flyers in Game 7 at the Garden, a dramatic 2-1 win over the Penguins in Game 7 in Pittsburgh after the Pens had won three of the first four games in the series, and a dramatic 1-0 win over the Canadiens in Game 6 at the Garden after winning the first two games in Montreal with the howls of the Canadiens faithful against them. The spirit and resolve of Martin St. Louis after his mother's death and the way the team supported him had a lot to do with that.

They survived and are on the brink of another title, starting on the edge of the Pacific, much farther south than the city of their last Final opponent, the Vancouver Canucks, two decades ago.

With 100 points, the Kings finished with only four more than the Rangers, and other numbers show that this series could be a toss-up. In the past five years, the higher-seeded team in the Final is 2-3.

Who wins the crown this time could come down to the Kings vs. The King: Henrik Lundqvist.

Los Angeles, Vigneault said, is "defensively sound, great goaltending, they play four lines, they've been there before, they went from the lowest-scoring team to make it into the playoffs to I think the highest-scoring team now . . . They've definitely got size, and they've added speed and scoring when they added [former Ranger Marian] Gaborik. They're the real thing. They're the real deal."

The players know what they are up against: an experienced bunch that won the Cup two years ago, with a steel will shaped by coach Darryl Sutter, from a farm family that produced a string of NHL players.

"They play Sutter hockey, hard-nosed," said Rangers winger Derek Dorsett, who saw plenty of the Kings while playing for the Columbus Blue Jackets before being traded to the Rangers. "We've got to play the way we played the last half of the season, keep them on the outside, get pucks deep and work on their 'D.' "

Vigneault knows the western trails, having coached in Vancouver for seven seasons and having lost to the Bruins at home in Game 7 in the 2011 Final. Street riots followed. They take hockey seriously there.

"I can tell you when I lost Game 7, there was a lot of crying from my part," Vigneault said this week. "My girls [two daughters] were there, I had some friends there. It was real emotional, real hard."

This June will be no less emotional, no less difficult. But Vigneault and the Rangers plan to be smiling this time around.

New York Sports