At a glance: The Rangers open their 2013-14 season Thursday night against Phoenix with hopes of shutting the door on a disappointing end to last year and embracing the "clean slate" philosophy of new coach Alain Vigneault. Vigneault will be behind the bench for his first regular-season game since replacing John Tortorella this summer. His team struggled in the preseason -- notching only one win in six exhibition games -- and is in dire need of a strong start, considering the nine-game road trip the Rangers must endure to begin the season.
First up: The Rangers face off against a Phoenix Coyotes team that is aiming to get back to the playoffs after missing the cut last spring. They have strong goaltending in Mike Smith and one of the most well-regarded coaches in the game in Dave Tippett, and have added to their roster since last year. The team's biggest off-season acquisition (well, beyond a stable ownership group) was the signing of center Mike Ribeiro, who had a dynamite year with the Capitals in 2013 playing alongside Alex Ovechkin.
Missing in action: As expected, the Rangers will be without two of their top-six forwards -- captain Ryan Callahan and speedy winger Carl Hagelin, both of whom are rehabbing shoulder injuries. Though Callahan is very close to returning, neither player will be in the lineup Thursday. The Rangers need their depth players to step up during their teammates' absences.
Big year for Brad: In desperate need of a bounce-back year, Brad Richards will start the season with a different look. Vigneault has penciled in the veteran center to play left wing on the team's first line with fellow pivot Derek Stepan and Rick Nash. Richards has played wing previously in his career, but never as a Ranger.
Step by Step: The recently signed Stepan did not have the luxury of any preseason games to acclimate to the action. The 23-year-old center missed more than a week of camp because of a contract stalemate that finally came to a halt last week. He has not played in an NHL game of any kind since the team's second-round series against the Boston Bruins last spring.
Pressure's on, Hank: Team MVP Henrik Lundqvist vowed to not let his looming contract situation become a distraction, but he's playing for a large payday. The former Vezina Trophy winner, who said Thursday he is removing himself from negotiations during the season, is seeking a significant raise from the $6.875 million he is set to make this year. Should he continue his stellar play from the past two seasons, he can very well expect to become the highest-paid goaltender in the game.