New York Rangers' robotic thrillers approach Game 7 with dead calm

The twin pillars of Henrik Lundqvist and Alain Vigneault have given the Rangers a huge advantage in series deciders

Like the villain in an 80s horror flick, the Rangers are nearly impossible to kill. No amount of adversity, mental or physical resistance will deter them (this postseason, at least) from their goal of taking home the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup in the past 90 years. The Tampa Bay Lightning, will be the latest team to try, for a second time on Friday night.

Since Alain Vigneault took the reins as the head coach of the New York Rangers two years ago, the team has twice come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series. They’re the only team to pull off that impressive and improbable feat.

Even more impressive: Henrik Lundqvist is now 15-3 in elimination games since 2012. Those three losses, are obvious season-enders but what Lundqvist has managed to do is so far past absurd, it leaves ludicrous in the dust. In 18 games, that are essentially a coin flip – obviously it doesn’t really work like that in sports – he’s defied the odds to play to an .833 winning percentage. Good luck, Tampa Bay.

“I think it’s just important that you stay focused on the important thing and that’s doing your job,” Lundqvist told reporters in Tampa before his team’s 7-3 game six win. “You don’t think about the situation you’re in.”

In that game, before the flood gates – named after Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop’s pads – opened to a barrage of pucks, it was Lundqvist, the stalwart, standing strong and tall, playing aggressively and challenging shooters, who kept the Rangers in the game.

Think about the confidence boost Lundqvist provides in every big game. Lightning fans are probably tearing their hair from the root and biting their nails to the cuticle, wondering which Bishop is going to show up. Or wondering whether their coach should pull a last-minute switch and start a 20-year-old Russian goaltender who wasn’t even alive the last time the New York Rangers won a Stanley Cup.

It’s experience combined with natural skill and emotional confidence, that Lundqvist can draw on and few goalies have. Experience from his years in the league but also from a multitude of games already in these playoffs. It’s an ever-building model.

“Every year you learn about yourself, about the game and you bring it with you,” Lundqvist said. “A lot of these games come down to preparation and being in the right place mentally.”

That preparation starts with the coaching staff – and the stoic statue behind the Rangers bench, clinking a lozenge against his teeth is Vigneault. His last game seven loss came when he was coaching the Vancouver Canucks and lost his team the Stanley Cup final. Vigneault didn’t like that experience very much and doesn’t want to repeat it.

His team approaches the game like a corporate leadership conference. In sports, we play up the underdog and pray for Goliath to fall, but the Rangers feel like neither a stunning story to capture our hearts or a historically great team. Some will try to assign meaning in every drop of blood or sweat, but for the Rangers, it’s mostly work and a little dash of fun.

After the Rangers – for the second time in two years – came back from a 3-1 series deficit and won a game seven, this time against the Washington Capitals, Vigneault was pressed about what made his team special. Everyone wanted to know the special ingredient to success, what his team’s secret is. He sounded like a fresh-out-of-college 20-something, looking to get his first internship at an investment bank, listing his strengths, as he described his leadership group.

“They’re a mature group that is task-oriented and they want to win,” Vigneault said. “They’re very coachable and they just want to win.”

It’s not exactly romantic poetry coming from the coach’s mouth but there’s more truth in that statement than any platitude about heart, grit and perseverance. It’s a perfect summary of who the Rangers are.

Vigneault was asked, specifically to address what makes his team so difficult to eliminate after that win. “I just think our guys stay in the moment, stay in the present and focus on what needs to be done,” he responded.

That sort of equal, even-keeled approach trickles down to the players. It’s a leadership corps without boasting and often without any sort of high emotion. They’re there to do a job and they do it well.

Even after their historic comeback against the Capitals, Dan Girardi, a veteran defenseman with the team that’s been in New York his entire career, spoke exactly of that approach.

“I think we had a good feeling heading into today,” Girardi said after the win. “We weren’t too tense or too laid back … that’s a good way to go into a game. No one squeezing the stick too tight no one’s getting all crazy running around. We’re just trying to stay calm and play within our system.”

Every player on the team appears an emotional clone of their coach, and that level-headedness is exactly what keeps the sail from flapping in the wind.

Carl Hagelin, another longtime Rangers credited Vigneault, for the team’s business-like temperament. “I think it starts with him,” Hagelin said. “He’s not going to get too rattled over small mistakes we’re making out there, so guys know if you make a mistake your teammate’s going to be there and save you. We just overall have a great group of guys in this locker room.”

For the Rangers, it’s that “one game at a time,” cliché and truthfully, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better combination in the league to take the ice with than Vigneault behind the bench and Lundqvist in goal, now 8-1 together in elimination games.

Patrick Kearns

The GuardianTramp

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