NEW YORK -- It would be wrong to question the New York Rangers' heart, because of what they have accomplished throughout this season on sometimes that alone. But after Wednesday night's 5-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils, how many more miraculous moments does this team have left?
The Rangers have poured out every ounce of will to secure some of the most stunning victories of the postseason: an epic, triple-overtime thriller in Washington on May 2 and, two games later, Brad Richards' seminal game-tying goal with 7.6 seconds left in another OT win.
Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals seemed destined to be another one of those exultant wins.
But after outplaying the Devils for the majority of the match and rallying from a three-goal deficit -- coach John Tortorella called it the team's best game of the series -- the Rangers were saddled with a heartbreaking defeat that has them on the brink of elimination heading into Friday's Game 6.
Could that be the final dagger?
"I have a tremendous amount of confidence in how we'll react to this," Tortorella maintained.
The Rangers surrendered three goals before the midway point of the first period, then erased the gaping deficit to tie the score 17 seconds into the third.
First came Brandon Prust, who shoveled the puck past Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur with 4:19 remaining in the first and gave the sullen Madison Square Garden crowd a goal on which to hinge its hope.
Then came a dominating second period in which heart-and-soul captain Ryan Callahan whittled the Devils' lead to a conquerable one goal, a reward for his finest performance in the series.
By the time the third period began, Marian Gaborik's goal felt inevitable. But after that third-period equalizer -- the struggling sniper's redemption shot after being demoted to the third line -- the game slipped away in a way that seemed almost cruel.
The grit and resolve and guts just wasn't enough to tip the scales, as a few defensive breakdowns allowed New Jersey's Ryan Carter to silence the Garden with his game-winner with 4:24 to play.
"I don't agree with you," Tortorella said. "We lose, we move on. We get ready for our next one."
The resilient Rangers have shown the mental fortitude to respond when faced with similar challenges -- they stared down elimination in the quarterfinals after dropping Game 5 to Ottawa -- and the team has consistently displayed a heroic amount of heart.
But how much is left from a top-seeded Rangers squad that hasn't been able to break the seesaw chain of events that has made the first three rounds a marathon of will?
The remarkable three-goal rally on Wednesday almost negated yet another disastrous start -- one that the team attributed to some puck luck for New Jersey, but left New York in a 3-0 hole regardless -- but no team can recover when put in that situation time and time again.
"It's just ," Callahan said, looking for an answer. "It's just got to be better."
The Devils head home with a 3-2 series lead and the chance to finish off their hated rivals. And for all the moments the Rangers have seized, this is not an opponent on the same scale as the Senators or the Capitals.
"You lean on what you've done in the past, but it's a different team, a different series," defenseman Dan Girardi said. "It's just a matter of whatever we did right tonight, start that way in Game 6 and let it fall into place from there."
Heart? The Rangers have plenty. But facing their toughest task yet, they'll need more than just that.