Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) reacts after giving up two...

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) reacts after giving up two goals during the first period of a preseason game against the New Jersey Devils, Monday, Sept. 22, 2014, in New York. The Devils won, 5-4. Credit: AP / John Minchillo

The 2013-14 Eastern Conference Championship banner is already hanging from the rafters at Madison Square Garden. For the Rangers, it should be a constant reminder of how difficult it will be to return to the Stanley Cup Final.

Since 1997, only five teams have made it to the Final in back-to-back years: 1997-98 Red Wings, 1999-2000 Stars, 2000-01 Devils, 2008-09 Penguins and 2008-09 Red Wings.

"I believe we're a good team, but there are a lot of good teams in the NHL," said coach Alain Vigneault, beginning his second season behind the Rangers' bench. "We're going to have to battle to get into the playoffs. We've changed some pieces; we've got to form this group's identity. What's going to help is that most of the core pieces are back."

Sixteen players from the 96-point regular season and postseason run, including new captain Ryan McDonagh, Martin St. Louis, Rick Nash, Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, will be in St. Louis for the opener Thursday night. Missing is No. 1 center Derek Stepan, who fractured his left fibula in a conditioning drill and will miss the first 10 games.

"Even though the summer was shorter this year, I'll take that any year," said Henrik Lundqvist, the perennial Vezina Trophy candidate who, after a slow start last season, was again the backbone of the club. "I think [the playoff run] can help us. We learned from it and appreciate it. We need to get a good start and start building something."

But will the replacements for key contributors who are elsewhere (Brad Richards, Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot, Derek Dorsett and to a lesser extent, Dan Carcillo and Raphael Diaz) be able to replicate the points and personalities that helped craft a special season that ended in mid-June in Los Angeles?

Free-agent veterans will try to fill some of the gaps. Defenseman Dan Boyle, better offensively but not as defense-oriented as Stralman, was brought in from San Jose to help resuscitate the power play; Ryan Malone and Lee Stempniak will try to replace Pouliot's net-front presence and production, and Tanner Glass will attempt to duplicate the Dorsett/Carcillo fourth-line energy and snarl.

A variety of youngsters are being counted on to add speed and scoring. J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast, each of whom started with the team but shuttled back and forth to the AHL, will try to have more of an impact: Miller at center and Fast to replace Brian Boyle on the fourth line and penalty-kill.

And two first-timers are on hand: Anthony "The Duke" Duclair, 19, who scored 50 goals and 99 points in juniors and opened eyes with his wheels and savvy, and the 6-4 Kevin Hayes, who should help with his size.

And there are intangibles. Most players know the coaching staff, and vice versa. And with construction completed at the Garden, the Rangers will play 11 of the first 16 games at home rather than last year's nine road games, during which the Blueshirts went 3-6. "It's going to permit us to have the start I believe we need to have," Vigneault said.

The Western Conference boasts a half-dozen Cup contenders, but the East won't be a cakewalk. The Bruins are bringing back almost all of their deep, tested roster; the Penguins have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and a new coach and general manager; the Lightning has a host of talented youngsters plus former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, Stralman and Brian Boyle; and the Canadiens, Blue Jackets, Islanders and Devils appear, on paper at least, to be more dangerous.

"Right now we're not looking at the Stanley Cup," Staal said. "We're looking at trying to keep getting better throughout the year, that's our goal."

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