The Rangers never shied away, as Alain Vigneault reiterated Thursday, that the team’s goal was to win the Stanley Cup, and they knew they’d ultimately be judged based on playoff success and nothing else.
With their loss Friday to the Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, their first ever loss in a home Game 7, the Rangers’ season will widely be considered a failure. Their inability to capitalize on three conference finals appearances in four years and a Cup Final appearance last season brings into question whether this group of Rangers has missed its chance at a title, whether its championship window may begin to close.
There were mixed feelings about that in a stunned Rangers locker room late Friday night, stunned it couldn’t score a goal at home for the second straight game. They ended the season on a 145-minute, 43-second goal drought in what was the World’s Most Famous Morgue Friday after Ondrej Palat put the Lightning up 2-0 with 8:43 left in the game, after which Henrik Lundqvist said he “felt like the entire building kind of died.” Derek Stepan said “everyone’s puzzled” as to why the Rangers were unable to get pucks by Ben Bishop in the Garden.
Rick Nash lamented a missed chance as what he thought was the team’s best opportunity at a title slipping away. Dan Girardi, 31, said “I hate to say it, but I’m getting older and the window might be closing.”
The Rangers have plenty of young, talented players, but they’re all going to need to be paid within the next couple of offseasons. Derek Stepan, Jesper Fast, J.T. Miller and Carl Hagelin all hit restricted free agency this summer, with Stepan due a sizeable raise. College teammates Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes will be restricted free agents at the end of next season, which is when deadline acquisition Keith Yandle will be an unrestricted free agent.
Martin St. Louis and James Sheppard hit unrestricted free agency this summer. St. Louis’ age (39) and brutal postseason suggest the future Hall-of-Famer won’t return.
Who will be deciding which players get paid and which don’t? It’s always possible president and general manager Glen Sather, 71, could retire, leaving assistant GM and salary-cap handler Jeff Gorton to ostensibly take over.
They do have a solid trade chip in backup goaltender Cam Talbot, who went 16-4-3 in his 23 starts during Lundqvist’s 25-game absence in the regular season with a sprained blood vessel in his neck. How much the Rangers can get in return isn’t entirely clear.
The complexion of the roster could change considerably over the next couple of years as a 33-year-old Lundqvist sees his prime years dwindle. Still, there was optimism from other corners of the locker room late Friday that the Rangers will still be able to contend for that elusive Stanley Cup.
Marc Staal said he wasn’t worried they might not get so deep in the playoffs again.
“We’ve got a solid core of guys and we’re not finished yet,” he said. “We’re one period away from going back to the finals. We’ll be back in this position again.”
Stepan views the Rangers as being on the cusp of a championship as opposed to possibly losing their chance at one.
“There’s no secret that we are really close,” he said. “We’ve got a great group of guys in here and a group that certainly should be proud of how well we’ve played the last four years. We’ve played a lot of good hockey as a group.”
Just not good enough to get back to the Cup. The Rangers will always have the Presidents’ Trophy and the comeback against Washington from 3-1 down. But there will be a bitter taste in their mouths in the wake of a mind-boggling inability to win at home when it mattered most, win in the building they earned the right to play four out of seven games for every series by winning that Presidents’ Trophy. They’ll remember going 1-3 at the Garden in the conference finals, scoring just four goals in those contests.
“It’s really disappointing that we couldn’t get another shot at the Cup this year,” Girardi said, knowing full well it may never come again.
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