Alain Vigneault doesn't think the Olympic break will throw off his team's second-half charge. Credit: Getty Images
The specter of the Sochi Olympics has loomed over the 2013-14 NHL season.
And now, with the NHL about to go on a two-week hiatus for the Olympics, the challenge for the league's 30 teams — including the Rangers, who will send seven to the Russian resort village — is how to maintain focus for their remaining regular-season games prior to the break.
"Well, I'm hoping it's not hard," head coach Alain Vigneault told reporters after Thursday morning's early skate at the Garden. "It's our job — coaches and players — to make sure we're focused on the task at hand, here."
The Rangers hosted Edmonton Thursday night, then traveled to Pittsburgh for Friday night's game against the Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division-leading Penguins. The back-to-back games are the Rangers' final two games before the Olympics.
While Friday night's game against the Penguins is decidedly a heavyweight tilt, Vigneault stressed his team could not look past the Western Conference-worst Oilers.
"We're meeting a team that [has] won four of their last five," Vigneault said of the Oilers. "We're meeting a team that [has] four scorers that have as many or more points than our top two guys. So this team can score. This team has a lot of skill and great youth, with a lot of upside and potential. They're playing well right now so we're going to have our hands full tonight."
Change is here
Numbers never lie.
In the case of the Rangers, the numbers show a team which has won 11 of 16 games dating back to January, and have put them in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff mix.
Still, this is the same group that was 20-19-2 in the season's first three months. So, the question posed to Vigneault was what has changed with his team?
"Like any time a new coach comes in there's an adaptation period," Vigneault said. "But, for the most part, this is a group that wants to do well, wants direction and they're working real hard. That's what you want from your team."
St. Louis in Russia
Hockey Canada announced Thursday morning Lightning right wing Martin St. Louis replaced Steven Stamkos on the Canadian Men's Olympic team.
Stamkos, St. Louis' center on the Lightning's top line, was pulled off of Team Canada Wednesday as his broken right fibula — suffered in the Lightning's 3-0 loss to the Boston Bruins on Nov. 11 — had not healed sufficiently.
The Sochi Games will be St. Louis' second Olympic experience. He was a member of the 2006 Canadian team that did not medal in Torino, Italy.
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter@DenisGorman.