Head coach Alain Vigneault’s seven seasons in the Western Conference have given him an appreciation for the Red Wings.
That hasn’t changed, even though both Vigneault and the Red Wings are now in the Eastern Conference.
“They’re a team in my estimation [that has] a real solid foundation,” Vigneault said after a full-team morning skate at the Garden Thursday. “They do things consistently — in my opinion, again — the right way: very strong on the puck, very hard team as far as reloading, backchecking, pursuing the puck to get it back and when they have it they work like bastards to keep that puck. It’s unreal how hard those guys work.
“One thing offensively I think they do as well as, if not better than, any other team in the league is net presence,” Vigneault said. “There’s always one guy on each line who almost seems like — he’s not but it almost seems like — he’s designated to go stand in front of the goaltender to make it real hard on him. That’s why they’ve been one of the best teams in the league for so long.”
The Rangers entered Thursday night’s game one point ahead of Detroit in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Rangers are in eighth in the Eastern Conference with 51 points. The Red Wings are in ninth with 50.
Detroit has qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs in 22 straight seasons. The last time the Red Wings missed the playoffs was 1989-90.
“They’re going to come after us,” Vigneault said. “They’re a good skill team. It’s going to be a real tough game for us. We’re going to have to be at our best. [If] I’m a player [or if] I’m a coach coming in here today, looking at the standings, it’s going to be a great game.”
Detroit did not have regulars Johan Franzen, Jonas Gustavsson, Pavel Datsyuk, Darren Helm, Jonathan Ericsson and Tomas Tatar. Franzen, Gustavsson, Datsyuk, Helm and Ericsson were out with injuries, while Tatar returned to his native Slovakia for his father’s funeral.
The hiring of Vigneault as coach was done to bring about a complete philosophical change from the approach favored by John Tortorella.
Among the differences between the coaches is the man-to-man defensive system Vigneault has implemented. Under Tortorella, the Rangers were a zone defending squad.
After some early season gestation period in which the system was criticized, the Rangers appear to have developed a comfort level.
“I think we’re doing a good job of figuring out now, man-on-man it puts a lot more onus on you as a player to beat that guy and make a good play on him,” defenseman Dan Girardi said. “We like this system a lot.
“I think it took longer than it maybe should’ve. Obviously the first 10, 20 games we were struggling defensively and not winning many games. It is a little bit different when you’re used to having a safety valve behind you and having that next layer [when an opponent tries] to get to the net.”
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.