BOSTON -- In between long, labored pauses and a few disheartened sighs, Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist kept coming back to the same refrain in searching for answers after the team’s season-ending loss to Boston in Game 5 on Saturday.
This year had a “different feel,” he kept repeating.
And it did.
The Rangers’ last game of the season -- a 3-1 loss to the Bruins -- was indicative of the team’s arc throughout the year: high hopes that ultimately fell painfully short.
“I expected more from us and I hoped for more,” said Lundqvist, who finished Game 5 with 29 saves.
Coming off a trip to the Eastern Conference finals last season, the Rangers were a popular preseason pick for Stanley Cup projections: a strong core group of players now equipped with playoff experience, a reigning Vezina Trophy Winner in goal and a premier player added in star winger Rick Nash.
On paper, the team looked fearsome. In reality, they just weren’t.
Struggling to even make the cut of the top eight teams in the East, the Rangers' shortcomings were conspicuous against a deep, balanced, physical and experienced Bruins team -- one that remained largely intact from their Stanley Cup Championship run two years ago.
“They deserved to win this series,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “They were the better team.”
Depth was the biggest reason, as the Bruins fed off rookie sensation Torey Krug and a productive fourth line Saturday night.
With the Bruins trailing 1-0 in the second period, Krug notched his fourth goal in five games -- a power-play goal at 3:48. Not bad for a 22-year-old defenseman who made his NHL playoff debut in Game 1 of the series.
Gritty fourth-liner Gregory Campbell tallied twice, chipping in both the go-ahead goal in the third and an empty-netter with less than a minute to play. The son of former Rangers coach Colin Campbell, along with linemates Shawn Thornton and Daniel Paille, were difference-makers all series.
“They had a lot of guys contribute throughout the series,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “Obviously tonight, their fourth line gets a goal. They were dangerous the whole series.”
By comparison, the Rangers’ injury-addled back end, without defensemen Marc Staal all five games and Anton Stralman the last two, struggled to contain a well-balanced Bruins attack that seemed, at times, unrelenting.
The Rangers didn't seem to find the requisite intensity or will until the last game and a half, either. They failed to sustain a forecheck. They spent too much time in their own end. And they relied upon Lundqvist with far too much frequency.
For a team that’s hard-nosed, blue-collar, lunch-pail mentality was uncompromising in 2011-12, it lacked that straightforward ethos in a lockout-shortened season that saw a significant changeover in personnel.
“I think, this season, we struggled to get our personality, to get our identity," Tortorella said.
Part of the reason for that was the grind of the shortened season, part was the absence of Tortorella’s notoriously rigorous training camp -- crucial in cultivating that mindset -- and part was the middle-of-the-lineup guys who departed for different locales last summer.
Regardless, this was a different team and not even nearly as dominant. The Rangers always seemed just a bit behind where they should’ve been, a bit short of where expectations had them pegged.
“I think everybody expected big things,” McDonagh said. “It’s tough to play from behind in a lot of series. We were able to show a lot of character and will in the first one [vs. Washington], not that we didn’t show it in this one, it just builds on you and it adds on you and the odds are against you. We were trying to compete all the way to the end.”
Much like both of the Rangers’ first two series, which left them trailing 2-0 after the opening pair of games, the Rangers had to fight to climb the standings. Last season, they pretty much cruised their way to the top of the East, with a conference-best 109 points in the regular season.
“Well, halfway through the season we were in a totally different position compared to last year. That’s why it’s a different feeling,” Lundqvist said. “This game is about winning, and when you’re winning, you have one feeling, and when you’re losing, you have another feeling.”
Perhaps that is the most heartbreaking realization for Lundqvist, who sat in his stall for several minutes after the game, hands on his sweat-drenched cap, trying to absorb the shock of defeat.
The Rangers had a narrow window last year, a really good chance at making a run for the Cup, and it didn’t happen. A veteran like Lundqvist knows that opportunity doesn’t come often.
“Some years you don’t really have a chance to go that far in the playoffs, you just battle hard,” he said. “I think this year we had a pretty good team, but, um, I just think there was a few games where we didn’t reach our top level. When you play a team like Boston, it’s going to be tough to beat them.”
The Rangers managed to take one game -- largely because of a lucky tumble taken by Tuukka Rask that led to a New York goal -- to salvage some pride and avoid a spirit-sapping sweep.
But the Rangers were never going to get past this Bruins squad.
Boston was the better team. And the Rangers weren’t good enough.
“They deserved to win,” Lundqvist said. “No question.”