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Rangers awaken to reality of season after celebrating conference title

The Rangers celebrated the spring of 2014 one last time in their home opener.

Henrik Lundqvist Henrik Lundqvist was peppered with shots all home opener.
Credit: Getty Images

The Rangers celebrated the spring of 2014 one last time in their home opener.

There was the video, highlighting the moments and people who transformed the big town into a hockey town for the first time in two decades, there was the banner, already hung, basking in the glow of a welcoming spotlight, and there were the introductions, with Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh and head coach Alain Vigneault receiving sustained ovations.

When the evening's activities concluded two hours and 35 minutes later, the remembrance of last spring had been replaced by the reality of the current campaign.

"Obviously, there are some things we need to work on," Henrik Lundqvist said after the 6-3 loss to the Maple Leafs Sunday night.

Against a team that had lost its first two games of the season, the Rangers allowed the Leafs to play the part of their 1967 Cup-winning predecessors.

Throughout the match, Toronto used its speed to both back off and spread out the Rangers in the neutral and defensive zones leading to what Vigneault termed "Grade A" scoring chances.

"They're a good transition team; we knew that going in," said Dan Girardi, who along with defense partner Ryan McDonagh were on the ice for four of Toronto's six goals. "It just seemed like we were spaced out between their forwards and [defense], and they were getting those three-on-twos, those criss-crosses going."

It left Lundqvist in the role of a blindfolded man facing a firing squad. The franchise cornerstone was lifted for Cam Talbot after yielding Toronto's six goals on 24 shots. Talbot finished with 12 saves on 12 shots in 24:47 of mop-up duty.

"Every opportunity seemed to find the back of our net," said Vigneault. "We can preform a lot better than we did tonight. You can't point fingers at anybody in particular. [If] there's a team loss this is one of them. We didn't preform well; we didn't execute well with or without the puck. That's why we got the result we had tonight."

Among the themes that marked the Rangers' run to the Cup Final was a team that used its speed and skill to force opponents to defend for long stretches. After consecutive losses in which their game was effectively used to neutralize them, Girardi suggested the reigning Eastern Conference champions need to return to basics.

"We have to have confidence in our team speed," Girardi said. "As [defensemen] we have to make those plays up to the forwards, let them skate onto it, hang onto pucks down low. I think it's a matter of playing with some confidence and have some faith in each other."

Girardi's words could be viewed as troubling for a group whose collective belief in each other is a distinct trait.

Still, the challenge is not to get lost in the haze of memory. Because as warm as the memories of last spring are, they are just that: memories.

"We've turned the page on last year," Vigneault said a little more than two hours prior to the first meaningful NHL game contested at the Garden since June 11. "This is a whole new year."

Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.

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