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Can Alain Vigneault lead Rangers back to the playoffs?

Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault looks on during

Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault looks on during the first period against the Devils at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Criticism? The Rangers’ coach took his fair share from fans and the press early in the season when the Blueshirts looked anything like contenders during their 3-7-2 start.

But the Rangers steadied and reversed course in November, and have climbed into a playoff spot by going 18-6-3 since then. Whether they can hang in under the helm of Alain Vigneault is a question for the winter, which has suddenly arrived in New York.

Vigneault, 56, in his fifth season since replacing John Tortorella in June 2013, has almost all the numbers in his back pocket: He is the first Blueshirts head coach to start five straight seasons with the team since Phil Watson, starting in the 1955-56 season, and leads all NHL coaches in wins since 2006-07, when he was behind the bench of the Vancouver Canucks.

His teams have won the Presidents’ Trophy three times, and with the Rangers’ 3-2 overtime win at the Winter Classic in Citi Field, he won his 635th game, which moved him into 11th place on the all-time wins list.

But a Stanley Cup remains elusive for Vigneault, who has been to the Final twice.

The second half of the season, which begins during the Rangers upcoming trip to Arizona and Las Vegas, will not only be a referendum for the team, but for the Quebec native. The challenge? As of Thursday, 42 games remain and 26 are on the road, where the Rangers are a subpar 6-7-2.

Starting with Game 42, his previous four teams have posted these road marks: 13-5-3 (2013-14); 16-4-1 (2014-15), 11-7-2 (2015-16) and 13-6-2 (2016-17). All winning records, but none covering more than 21 matches — not 26 — away from the Garden.

“To tell you the truth,” Vigneault said at the podium on the fifth floor at Madison Square Garden before facing the Blackhawks on Wednesday, “we’re a good road team. For whatever reason, the schedule had us playing more home games in the first half, but I’m very confident in this group’s ability to play the right way on the road, they’ve been good since I’ve been here.”

Those extra five games and 10 points up for grabs could mean the difference between making the playoffs or not in the East.

In the past four years, observers have seen Vigneault’s patterns: He relies on his leadership group to persuade players to be ready when the puck drops — which hasn’t always been the case — rarely shouts publicly after a loss, although he simmers and slams doors. And he has go-to quotes and phrases such as “It was a hard-fought game,” “I would say to you,” and “If I was a betting man.”

What doesn’t he like? Morning skates, calling timeouts and giving young players as long of a leash as those who have proved themselves.

Vigneault, speaking earlier in the season about some inconsistent play from Kevin Shattenkirk, said: “He’s got money in the bank. I don’t mean money — the real money — but the way that he’s played in the past. It’s different than a young player trying to establish himself. The young player has to get money in the bank. Shattenkirk has played in tough moments.”

Jesper Fast, who recently turned 26, is an exception. “He’s such a low-maintenance player . . . ,” said Vigneault. “Any guy on our team upfront who wants to know how to play the system and how to do the little things right, all you’ve got to do is look at him, watch 20 minutes of Jesper Fast playing hockey. On the forecheck, on the backcheck, along the wall, on the boards, stick position. He just understands the game and he gets it. Lately he’s been able to make some pretty good plays that have led to goals and if we can get a little bit more of that . . . ”

That’s not to say Vigneault isn’t willing to give youngsters some ice time — when they’re ready. He’s been watching the World Junior Championships, as he does every year “like any hockey fan,” he said Wednesday.

“At the rink and practice facility [the games] are on every TV,” Vigneault said, and mentioned the team’s two first-round draft picks last June, Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil, who are starring for Sweden and the Czech Republic. “We’re fortunate that we’ve got two good young players who are paying real well in that tournament.”

For Vigneault, finding a balance between past and present, and a bagful or road victories in the next few months, is critical if the Blueshirts intend to be skating when it really counts in May and beyond.

New York Sports