All the pieces click for Rangers

"Probably would have said: 'What are you smoking?'" Vigneault said with a laugh.

Indeed.

The Rangers meandered their way through the first half of the season before finally beginning to understand what Vigneault was selling them.

Through it all, the coach they call "AV" was patient, he believed in the process and never lost faith it would begin to sink in.

Now Vigneault is headed to his second Cup finals in four years, and it's no coincidence.

Down the hall in the visitors room Thursday night, there was the usual sense of emptiness when one's season is over, especially so close to a Cup finals appearance.

Let's be honest here: The Habs began the season as a playoff bubble team. To have reached the Eastern Conference finals is a major achievement. There is zero shame in losing out at this stage of the tournament.

It does make you wonder had Olympic stud goalie Carey Price not been injured in the opening game if this series would have played out differently.

Interestingly, Montreal coach Michel Therrien said afterward that Price was working hard to try to return for Game 1 of the Cup finals.

It almost happened, thanks to rookie Dustin Tokarski. The kid from Watson, Saskatchewan, was simply terrific; with barely a lick of NHL experience under his belt, Tokarski stepped in to play five very good games under incredible pressure.

He stopped 31 of 32 shots Thursday night to keep the Habs within striking distance when they really didn't deserve to be.

"That game could have easily been 4-0 or 5-0," said Habs winger Max Pacioretty. "He kept us in that game; 1-0 was a very misleading score for that game."

Tokarski made a name for himself. He'll be able to look back and see the positive in that.

"I hope so," said the 24-year-old. "It might take a little while. Right now it's tough; you're just thinking about what could have been. It was a fun series, it was great to be a part of, and hopefully I can get back here again one day."

St. Louis and Brad Richards were beginning to wonder just that: Would they ever get back to the promised land after lifting Lord Stanley's mug 10 years ago in Tampa?

"Yeah, I'll be honest, it's hard to believe. Ten years goes by so quick," said Richards. "We were just talking about how we definitely thought we'd be back after winning in Tampa and the lockout and all that stuff happened, and the salary cap and the team just didn't stay together too long. Never would have thought we'd be here today in New York doing it. Even to start the season, I never imagined Marty being here.

"So the fact that all of that has come [together], it's great. We've created so many friendships this year. Our group has come together so much, but obviously Marty and I go back a long way. And we don't want it to be about us. But it's still a pretty cool feeling."

St. Louis turns 39 on June 18, which just happens to be the day Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals is scheduled.

You wouldn't want to bet against the veteran winger and the Rangers that day. Because you know somebody will be there with him in spirit, talking him through every shift.

There will be time this summer for St. Louis to grieve more appropriately. But right now, he's got one more series to win for Mom.

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