New York Rangers defenseman John Moore paused to find the right answer. He was asked to recall a moment the Rangers experienced that would exemplify the way they played under coach Alain Vigneault -- one they might not have made with a different man behind the bench.
“It’s the one-touch passes, the guys coming and going all over the place that result in a beautiful goal,” Moore said.
Then the example came to him.
It was during Game 1 in Montreal, and the Rangers had a 3-1 lead late in the second period. Mats Zuccarello controlled the puck along the boards as he gained control of the offensive zone.
“A lot of guys there would chip it deep or [Brad Richards] would go support him on the other side of the ice,” Moore said. “He has the wherewithal to read that the no-look pass is going to come. When it all comes together, it’s a pretty thing."
It was a pretty thing in this case, with Zuccarello driving wide, then finding Richards with a quick pass in front of Carey Price for the goal, one that helped make sure Game 1 was a rout. No conservative dump-in to protect a lead in a playoff game; just two talented offensive players making plays.
It all looked completely natural, no hesitation. It hasn’t always been that way with this group of Rangers.
“It’s also taken us a long time,” Moore said. “We had our fair share of downs in the beginning of the year to get used to this.”
The Rangers are one win away from playing for a Stanley Cup. One win and they’re back in the finals for the first time since 1994. One win and Vigneault has another crack at the Stanley Cup he nearly won in 2011 with the Vancouver Canucks.
The transformation Vigneault has patiently overseen has given us a team that has emerged as the Eastern Conference’s best hope for a championship, and it has been pretty remarkable, considering the Rangers’ early struggles. They limped to just two wins in their first eight games; there was a 9-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks, who are now eliminated. And a 6-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, another club eliminated by the powerful Los Angeles Kings.
Coach Ken Hitchcock’s St. Louis Blues got in on the early season action, beating the Rangers 5-3 for the team's fourth loss in five games to open the season.
“It was an unfair evaluation,” Hitchcock said during a Monday morning phone conversation. “It takes time to get a coach’s system in. Once the players feel comfortable, they can just play. His teams, they just play. There’s no secret to the way they play.”
An Alain Vigneault team is going to roll four lines. Speed is going to be a big factor. He’s going to have an active defense, all five guys involved. Players are going to be expected to read and make plays based on their skill set and the situation.
It all takes getting used to. But when you examine the biggest impact Vigneault has made on this team, it’s not systematic. It’s how he handles the players.