GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Though the unsightly slump predated his tenure as New York Rangers coach, Alain Vigneault was well aware of the eight-game losing streak at Bell Centre that was nagging at his club back in November.
So before the team’s first 2013-14 regular-season game at the home of the Montreal Canadiens, Vigneault walked into the dressing room and did the only thing he could to lighten the mood.
He cracked a joke.
"I remember him saying: 'I've coached here. There are no ghosts,'" recounted veteran center Brad Richards. "I don't know if we needed it, but it was a funny moment. It was just a moment of 'give your head a shake here. You're allowed to win in this building.'"
Richards admits he was a bit flabbergasted at the type of dread the Rangers felt when packing up for a road trip to Montreal. Growing up on Prince Edward Island, Montreal's home ice was always the most revered hockey venue, the place all Canadian kids dreamed of playing.
That allure never abated when Richards made it to the NHL. He says it remains "his favorite building to play in."
"I'm not gonna lie, it's the best place to play," Richards said following the team's practice on Thursday. "I've been at Super Bowls, Yankees-Red Sox games at old Yankee Stadium, Game 7 of the World Series, I've played in Stanley Cup finals. I can't imagine any sporting event this amazing. ... It's gonna be so fun. It's going to be a great opportunity for us."
It must feel like a rare one for goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who has not played there since Jan. 15, 2012. Cam Talbot, who snapped the team's eight-game losing streak there with his first NHL shutout on Nov. 16, started both regular-season games at Bell Centre this season.
"Well it's so long ago since I played there, so I don't really remember," Lundqvist joked. "I look forward to going there. It's a conference final in Montreal. That’s special."
Though Lundqvist's career record in Montreal is uncharacteristically abysmal -- 4-5-2, 3.87 GAA and .876 save percentage -- his recent play suggests he is prepared to take that trend in a different direction.
With a 35-save performance in the Rangers' 2-1 series-clinching win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday, Lundqvist improved to a pristine 5-0 in Game 7s. His steely nerves have made a huge impact for the Rangers; he has posted a 10-2 record, 1.32 GAA, .957 save percentage and two shutouts in the past 12 games with the Rangers facing elimination. Lundqvist is first in the NHL with eight wins in these playoffs. He also ranks second in both GAA (1.99) and save percentage (.931) during this postseason.
Lundqvist's plan is not to "overthink" the game, but instead to relish the experience.
"It's a great atmosphere, but every time you play in a building where the crowd's into it, it's a good feeling," he said. "You want to go in and win and silence them."
Derick Brassard, a native of Hull, Quebec, grew up a rabid Canadiens fan, watching games at the arena for as long as he can remember. He admits the chance to play a postseason game there will be "special," even if he has some close friends from back home who may be rooting against him.
He plans to limit contact with the outside world anyway, to limit the type of distraction he knows will await when the team enters hockey's hotbed.
"I'm not going to answer my phone a lot," Brassard said. "I'm just going there to play hockey."
Home ice may still very well be an advantage for the Habs (though ask the Penguins if the same was true). But the Rangers are not wasting time dwelling on previous struggles. They are making their second conference finals appearance in the past three years, and they realize now what a tremendous accomplishment it is and the type of opportunity that's ahead.
In 2012, the Rangers were bounced in six games by their Hudson River rivals, the New Jersey Devils. The pain of defeat in that series still stings for many of the holdovers from that Blueshirts bunch. That may just be the type of motivation needed to knock off the Habs.
"Different personnel, a different style of hockey, a little more experience and hopefully that helps the hunger," Richards said. "We’re very fortunate to be back here so quick."