This time, Rangers blinked first
NEWARK, N.J. -- For all their money and big-city profile and the swagger that is the New York Rangers, this ending was all too familiar: netminder Henrik Lundqvist standing in disbelief outside his crease, his teammates hunched over, some on one knee, while opponents celebrated a few feet away.
In this case, the defeat was made all the more miserable coming as it did just 1:03 into overtime of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals at the hands of their cross-river rivals, the New Jersey Devils: the puck skittering here and there in front of the Ranger goal, players falling, before it popped out and rookie Adam Henrique somehow got a stick on it and sent it home -- and sent the Rangers home.
The Devils, 3-2 winners, will move on to their first Stanley Cup finals since 2003 while the Rangers continue to try to chart that difficult course from good to legitimate contender.
If there is such a defined path, the Rangers have meandered around in the woods nearby with little sustained success since their last Cup win, in 1994.
There was much talk about that historic playoff run, one that included the classic conference finals against these New Jersey Devils, leading up to Friday's series-ending game. But, really, so little of it was relevant to either team.
What is relevant is that the Devils, for all their off-ice problems -- the threat of bankruptcy, the angry words with the local mayor -- have continued to be an admirable franchise on the ice.
"You know, this is a resilient group," head coach Pete DeBoer said after Friday's win.
How did they win three in a row over the Rangers?
"I don't have the answer to that, other than we've just been getting better and better," said DeBoer who is coaching in his first playoffs after being hired by the Devils last offseason. "Just like our season, you know, we talked about a slow build. We were a little tentative through the first round against Florida. I thought we really found another level against Philly, and we needed another level against the Rangers with the team they had. So we're trending in the right direction, and I think we're playing our best hockey right now."
In Game 6, the Devils burst out to a 2-0 lead and then, as they did in Game 5 when they blew a 3-0 first-period lead, allowed the Rangers back into the game with two second-period goals.
But when the focus narrowed, it was the Rangers who blinked.
Richards, a former playoff MVP, was made for these moments. He has shown throughout the spring he remains that kind of guy.
Just not tonight.
"Bang-bang play. It's a good save. I'd do it again same way," said Richards, who had an assist on the Rangers' first goal and finished the postseason with a team-best 15 points.
The Rangers entered the playoffs as the top seed in the Eastern Conference, yet struggled to dispatch the eighth and seventh seeds in Ottawa and Washington.
Against New Jersey, they continued to struggle with competitive starts, seemingly unable to respond to the Devils' relentless forechecking and their balanced offensive units.
Yet they also never wilted, coming back in Game 5 to tie the game as they did in Game 6.
"For me, from Day 1 of the season, through to the end of the playoffs here, for them, [this is] the hardest-working team, I think, in, the NHL. And they gave us everything we could handle," DeBoer said of the Rangers.
"It was the same story every night. We'd win the first period; they'd win the second. Whoever won the third or the overtime would win the game. So we feel fortunate to move through and proud of beating such a hard-working team."
In the end, though, a lack of a big-play contribution doomed the Rangers.
Now the question is whether this playoff run is the kind of thing that galvanizes them in the future -- as we've seen with a Los Angeles Kings team that was bounced in the first round the last two years but has torn through these playoffs and into their first finals since 1993.
Or even the Devils, who had not been to a conference final since 2003 and in fact missed the playoffs altogether last year.
"I love our jam. I love our [guts]," head coach John Tortorella said. "I really like what we have here. I don't think it'll be the same, there's always changes, but what our group has developed in our identity, their mindset I think showed tonight. We don't get it done but I just like the way they handled themselves."
For the past couple of days, Tortorella has been talking about the learning process during this kind of playoff run -- 20 postseason games, a pair of Game 7 victories, various struggles and ups and downs -- teaches coaches and management about the nature of their franchise.
This Ranger team is as blue-collar as they come, regardless of the fact they make their home in Manhattan.
The blue line is rock-solid and should only get better as players such as Ryan McDonagh, who added two more assists in Game 6, mature.
The offense sputtered throughout the postseason and, were it not for unexpected production from the back end from McDonagh and Dan Girardi, who combined for 16 points, and the steady play of Lundqvist in goal this spring, the Rangers would never have advanced this far.
"We're still a young club. And we still have quite a bit to learn as far as the desperation when you get to this third round," Tortorella said. "I just don't want us, and you hear it so much and I won't accept it, 'Well, you won a couple of rounds. You got into the third round.' That isn't good enough. We still have to find a way to win another round and get there."
Since the lockout, the Rangers have been a team built to just make the playoffs, maybe be middle of the pack, win a round, maybe not.
Maybe this season starts the team down a different track.
"We have to change our mindset to continue trying to be the best and learn that there's a lot more hockey to play after you go through a couple," Tortorella said.
And so the Rangers go home thinking of change while the Devils move on thinking of a championship.
But it's hard not to think, listening to Tortorella talk about changing his team's mindset, that there aren't many in the Ranger camp already thinking about what it might take to lure Devils captain Zach Parise across the river on July 1 when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
That wouldn't make up for this loss -- especially if the Devils go on to beat the Kings in the finals -- but it would offer some measure of payback for a big-city franchise that has historically never quite seemed the equal of their cross-river cousins.
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