NEW YORK – In the end, the Rangers ran out of ways.
They seemed to always find a way; through a Presidents’ Trophy-winning regular season, a five-game series win in the first round, and recovering from a 3-1 series deficit in the second round, it felt like they always found a way.
They trailed the Eastern Conference finals 3 games to 2 after five games, but they found a way to win Game 6, blowing the doors off Amalie Arena during a five-goal third period.
But in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden they ran out of ways, falling to the Lightning 2-0 in a season-ending defeat.
“We were the best team in the NHL in the regular season,” said defenseman Marc Staal. “You’re [favored] to win the entire thing. Disappointing, obviously, that we didn’t get there. We gave ourselves every opportunity to get back. We just don’t find a way to get it done in that third period, and they do.”
“We’re right there,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who was tremendous, keeping the hard-charging Lightning off the board through two periods. “It’s a great group to be a part of and we worked extremely hard. This year was not enough. We were so close. That’s what makes it special to go through this, but it’s also extremely tough when you don’t come up with the result.”
The Rangers suffered their first-ever Game 7 defeat at Madison Square Garden after seven straight victories, including four of them since 2012. They lost because they couldn’t score – they were blanked in each of their last two home games during this series, the first time they’ve ever been shut out in back-to-back postseason home games.
“Everybody in here gave it our best effort for sure, and we just weren’t able to make a couple of plays more than they did,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “They fought really hard. It was a great game to watch, I’m sure, and a great game to be a part of, but ultimately you want to try and find a way to win a game. They played really well defensively, really well all night and didn’t give us much room, so credit them.”
“I’m pretty upset,” said Rick Nash, who scored only five goals in 19 postseason games after potting 42 in the regular season. “In a career, you don’t get too many opportunities to play on a team like this and get that opportunity to win a championship. It’s pretty frustrating right now.”
The Lightning struck quickly in the third period, when Alex Killorn broke the scoreless tie with a backhander that Lundqvist never saw. Ondrej Palat added the insurance at 11:17 and the Rangers didn’t seriously threaten after that, failing to even register a shot on goal for the final 6:50.
“To come up short, it’s tough. As a fan, they see what we go through and they go through it as well, emotionally,” said Lundqvist. “I think we all feel at least that we put everything we had, and we really did everything we could to try to make it back to the Final.”
“We just were basically one period away from going to the Stanley Cup Final,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “Our guys competed real hard, battled real hard, and this is very disappointing to us, to our fans.”
“It’s tough to get there. It is,” said 39-year-old Martin St. Louis, who will be a free agent this summer. “We were fortunate to be there last year. I’m proud of this group. This group played hard. It’s a tough group. They played through injuries; they played through a lot of stuff. We can hold our head high. We played hard, we just came up empty. It’s a tough feeling for everybody.”
Especially Lundqvist, who was hunched over at the near-side faceoff dot before the customary post-series handshake line, alone in his thoughts after these Find-A-Way Rangers couldn’t pull one more rabbit out of the hat.
“I think everybody understands how hard it is, so it’s important that you appreciate every moment you get in this position,” Lundqvist said. “You learn from it. It’s definitely painful, but if it wouldn’t be painful it wouldn’t be a special place to be right now. Creating a lot of work and effort to be here, together we tried extremely hard to be here to put ourselves in a good spot.”
Ryan McDonagh played through a broken foot he suffered earlier this series, according to Vigneault. He nearly didn’t make it onto the ice after pre-game treatments took too long to kick in. Vigneault dressed a seventh defenseman, Matt Hunwick, who played for the first time since the first round. James Sheppard was scratched to make room.
The Rangers lost three home games in the same playoff series for the first time since 1982, and lost three straight games at the Garden for the first time since December, 2013.