- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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Coach John Tortorella wasn't about to finger anyone by name after the blood-and-guts way his New York Rangers team had just rallied and the crushing way their season abruptly ended Friday night, two wins shy of the franchise's first trip to the Stanley Cup finals since 1994. But he wasn't about to tell a lie, either, moments after the New Jersey Devils had eliminated the Rangers in overtime of Game 6 of their cross-river Eastern Conference battle.
Over the 20 playoff games the Rangers played in 44 nights, the story was usually the same, and there's no way to avoid it. Everyone can see what killed the Rangers in the playoffs is the same thing that could kill them going forward, despite all the terrific young players they have: All the contending teams around them have the sort of proven offensive punch that the Rangers simply cannot match.
The Rangers knew, even during their impressive regular season, that offense was their worst shortcoming. It's easy to wonder now if general manger Glen Sather or Tortorella himself thinks it was a mistake to listen to their locker room in the days leading up to the trade deadline. The players implored management over and over not to meddle with the chemistry of the team. And management didn't.
Now, there's actually a good argument to be made that the Rangers overachieved. They're a young, flawed team that was ahead of schedule but still needs some tweaks, and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and the defense carried them as far as they could go.
But nobody wants to hear that today.
Not when the Rangers led the Eastern Conference in points and had more points than anyone else until the final week of the regular season.
The hard truth is the Rangers are a lunchpail team, not a juggernaut. Their trademark is playing a grueling style that requires a colossal will to win, a determination to muck in the corners, and a willingness to throw themselves in the way of dozens of shots game after game and count on Lundqvist to do the rest.
The effort they spilled while forging that identity was so off-the-charts admirable, even Devils coach Peter DeBoer -- who is no fan of Tortorella's -- raved about the Rangers on Friday. And there's no better homage than prying a compliment like that out of a man who was standing on his bench, screaming obscenities at the Rangers just two games earlier, after Mike Rupp took a poke at the chest of legendary Devils goalie Martin Brodeur.
"For me, from Day 1 of the season through to the end of the playoffs here, for them, [they were] the hardest-working team, I think, in the NHL," DeBoer said of the Rangers. "They gave us everything we could handle."
Still, what happened to the Rangers is something you see all the time in sports: What wins in the regular season doesn't necessarily play in the postseason. Once in the playoffs, everyone plays with maniacal intensity night in and night out. The pressure spikes and distorts some guys. Preparation time increases and teams zero in on each other and figure out ways to cancel things out.
And then? Talent takes over even more. The sort of magical star talent -- or "skill" players, to use the hockey term -- that the Rangers don't have enough of yet, especially on the offensive end.
Marian Gaborik, who had 41 goals in the regular season, didn't play up to his potential and missed more open shots on net than you can count. Past Cup winner Brad Richards, who was brought to New York for this time of year, was good but not great. Tortorella finally admitted Friday that Rangers captain Ryan Callahan was playing "a little banged up."
If it weren't for their defensemen scoring some huge goals and the surprise contribution the Rangers got from rookie Chris Kreider, who joined them straight out of Boston College after the Ottawa series had started, the Rangers might've been out of the playoffs three weeks ago.
Instead, they barely survived Game 7 wars with Ottawa and Washington, the No. 8 and No. 7 seeds, and then couldn't get past a Devils club that was seeded sixth but, remember, finished only seven points behind the Rangers in the standings and split the regular-season series.
The Devils finally shoved the Rangers off the tightrope they were walking.
So it was good to see Tortorella acknowledge that this Rangers team was flawed.
It was even better to hear him vow that what the playoffs exposed about the Rangers will be addressed. Too often, the Rangers looked heavy-legged and mentally fried. Tortorella's demanding system and tough-love habits of trimming back his rotation and slapping players into his doghouse are hard ways to play.
"Some guys handled things very well, some guys didn't -- I'll be honest with you, some guys didn't," Tortorella repeated. "Those are the things we have to talk about as an organization if we're going to continue to try to get better. ... I really like what we have here. [But] I don't think it will be the same. There's always changes."
There are no guarantees the Rangers will be able to muster the same grit and guts and chemistry when they return next season.
Now it's up to the front office to add a few pieces and make sure they don't have to.