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Lupica: Between Rangers and Lightning, the better team won

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Henrik Lundqvist ponders what could have been as the Rangers get totally outplayed on their home ice this postseason.Kathy Willens/AP

Henrik Lundqvist ponders what could have been as the Rangers get totally outplayed on their home ice this postseason.

It wasn’t just Henrik Lundqvist doubled over in the first moments after the Rangers’ season was over, as if having just been gut-punched the way Rangers fans, and Madison Square Garden, had just been gut-punched in Game 7 by the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was all of them on the ice after the kind of game the Rangers had never before lost, a Game 7 at home, but just had. A team that had been living on borrowed time throughout this playoff season had finally run out of time.

Lundqvist hadn’t been able to save them because they had been shut out at home in Game 7 the way they had been shut out in Game 5 last Sunday night, after they were supposed to have taken the whole thing back from the Lightning on the road in Game 4. Who knows, maybe the Rangers would still be playing if they could play all their postseason games on the road. Because in this hockey spring, the one when the New York Rangers were supposed to manage a second Stanley Cup in the last 75 years, they played 11 home games and managed to win just six of them.

They run out of season now, a series short of the Stanley Cup Final, for a reason as old as the New York Rangers: They once again weren’t good enough to close the deal, whether they won the Presidents’ Trophy or not. After everything we have seen in the playoffs in the NHL, all the hot goalies and hot teams and even No. 8 seeds who have won it all, we were supposed to believe that suddenly the regular season the Rangers had was supposed to mean everything, and the first Cup since ’94 was their destiny. It wasn’t, not with this offense.

This doesn’t diminish their talent, their character, their ability to get hit and keep coming, their memorable ability to come from behind, whether they are down 1-3 or not.

It doesn’t diminish the greatness of Lundqvist, who remains our Patrick Ewing, a champion without portfolio. But as brilliant as Lundqvist was for almost all of this run — absent what we saw from him in Games 2 and 3 — the Rangers struggled to score goals the way the Mets sometimes struggle to score runs.

BONDY: WITHOUT A CO-STAR, LUNDQVIST COULD END UP LIKE PATRICK EWING

Maybe that is why everybody suddenly looked at Mats Zuccarello, who never played against the Lightning because of a puck to the head in the Capitals series, like he was Wayne Gretzky. Make no mistake, the Rangers lost plenty when they lost Zuccarello. He is fast and good and at his best was New York’s Tyler Johnson. He was just never supposed to be indispensable. Another reason why this wasn’t about bad luck, or bad bounces, or even Ryan McDonagh’s bad foot. It was about a team that wasn’t quite good enough.

Again.

The Rangers managed to win four 2-1 games against the Penguins, No. 1 seed vs. No. 8 seed series in which the sides looked even way too often. They didn’t score a goal over the last seven periods they played at home against the Lightning. They managed 11 shots in the first two periods of the biggest game of their season. They played 19 playoff games and in 13 of them scored two goals or fewer. They were shut out three times. They were less than two minutes from going home in Game 5 against the Capitals before Chris Kreider saved them by sending that one to overtime, where the Rangers won again.

Oh, we know what they did when they were behind the Capitals three games to one and how they played Tuesday night in Tampa when they were up against it again. But tell me how many times, really, you thought you were watching the powerhouse, odds-on best team in hockey over the last six weeks.

“We were 20 minutes away,” Lundqvist said when it was over.

The way it ended for Lundqvist and his teammates doesn’t change the way they became the biggest game in town this spring, the city’s best chance in a while to have a champion in something. It doesn’t change the way Lundqvist continues to accept the responsibilities of being this kind of star of his city, in victory and in defeat. His record in deciding games has already become a permanent part of his own playoff legend, even if he has now played as many games in the Stanley Cup Final as John Davidson did for the Rangers in 1979.

But as hard an out as Lundqvist and the Rangers were last year and as hard an out as they were this year, you cannot look at the series just played and say they were better than Tampa Bay, or more talented. And by the way? If the Rangers can take a punch, what about the team that just beat them? The Lightning lost, 5-1, in Game 4, came to New York and shut out the Rangers. The Lightning gave up seven goals in Game 6 with a chance to close out the Rangers, benched its goalie, Ben Bishop, in the third period of that one, and came back and shut out the Rangers again in Game 7. The Lightning wasn’t just faster than the Rangers, it was just as tough.

As dramatic and sometimes as thrilling as this playoff run was for the Rangers, out of April and into May, this is as bad an ending as any Rangers team has had in any season, going as far back as you want to go.

They went their last 145 minutes and 43 seconds at Madison Square Garden without scoring. They didn’t score a goal on the Garden ice after Derek Stepan scored at 14:17 of the second period of Game 2, almost two weeks ago. So it isn’t some crazy accident that they didn’t make it back to June. If you want to keep blaming it all on Rick Nash, have at it.

This is some team, and some team to watch. Again: It was as cool to watch them and root for them this spring as it has ever been, and that includes 1994. They made hockey as big as it has ever been in New York. This run of theirs really feels as if it has gone on for years. But maybe they are the hockey version of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, at least before 1955, or the Knicks of Ewing and Pat Riley, always waiting till next year. Maybe this is who they are, and all they are. Maybe they’re always going to be 20 minutes away.

A collapse sandwich, Thibs deserved better & Smith and lessons….

-The truth of what happened to the Rangers, when you look at the end of the Eastern Conference finals, is that they just threw in a beatdown in Game 6 around a historic collapse at home.

Upon being re-elected as president of FIFA the other day, Sepp Blatter did everything except say, “I am not a crook.”

FIFA, once and for all, has been exposed as the Tammany Hall of international sports.

There was a time, when the World Cup came to the United States, when one of the slogans was, “Two billion people can’t be wrong.”

Meaning the two billion around the world who love soccer.

I pointed out at the time that of course that many people could be wrong about something, because I figured at least that many people had seen “Cats.”

But you don’t need two billion to be wrong, just anybody who ever trusted people like Blatter, and the confederacy of thieves who run his sport.

It sounds like the ones selling votes so that Russia and Qatar could host World Cups were doing everything except handing out goody bags.

To go with the bags full of cash.

If you want a reality check, ratings-wise, go look at what LeBron against the Hawks last Sunday night did to Rangers-Lightning in that big old 18-to-49 demographic.

I’m starting to worry that this might be more than just a slump with Stephen Drew.

-You better know, now that Don Imus is leaving the Fox Business Network — but not radio — that he changed the way morning TV looked and sounded the way he did radio once.

He opened his last show on Fox, incidentally, joking that usually when he leaves a job, he has to be escorted out of the building.

Bill Russell once said about Joe Morgan, “Isn’t it interesting how good teams follow him around?”

Same thing with my friend Mr. Imus and ratings, and revenue.

Rafael Nadal may be breaking down in front of our eyes, but it would be a really good tennis thing if he manages to win another French Open.

-In his mean-spirited statement after firing Tom Thibodeau, Jerry Reinsdorf talked about the “organizational culture” around the Chicago Bulls.

Yeah, when Michael Jordan had the ball.

Here’s how that culture worked in Chicago after Michael left and before Thibodeau came to coach Reinsdorf’s basketball team:

A 371-581 record, and a .390 winning percentage, and coaches like Tim Floyd.

Then in Thibodeau’s five years, the winning percentage was .647.

Yeah, he was 23-28 in the playoffs.

Twelve of those losses were to LeBron.

He just couldn’t get past LeBron the way the old Knicks couldn’t get past Michael.

Who would you rather have coaching the Knicks, Thibodeau or Derek Fisher?

The Minnesota Twins are as big and surprising a story of the early season in baseball as the Houston Asteroids.

The Yankees lose 10 of 11, but then they sweep the Royals, and immediately it’s as if the 10 of 11 never happened, and look out American League East.

So it goes.

-There is no earthly reason why Geno Smith should be just handed the starting quarterback job with the Jets, and good for Todd Bowles for basically saying that.

And so you know?

Chan Gailey stepping on himself and essentially awarding Smith the job is a reason why a lot of famous football coaches I know want their assistants seen and not heard.

It brings to mind something Bette Midler used to say in concerts, about how there was a reason why she called the other singers in her act “backup girls.”

Because, the Divine Miss M said, “I’m always telling them: Back up, girls.”

-Phil Jackson, Zen Tweeter, wrote something this week about J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert needing a “comfort zone” to play their best.

Well, they sure must have had one here once under Mike Woodson, because when the Knicks won 54 games and the Atlantic Division, J.R. was Sixth Man of the Year and in the last game of that season, Shumpert was the best Knicks player on the court after Carmelo Anthony.

Apparently, after a year when Jackson’s own team won 17 games, he wants to do some kind of curtain call because two guys he gave away are doing so well in Cleveland.

The guy’s a giver, what can I say.

***

“Lupica” can be heard Monday through Friday at 1 p.m. and Sunday at 9 a.m. on ESPN 98.7.

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