NEW YORK – As players began to leave the Rangers locker room, team employees efficiently packed their blue and red equipment bags for the last time this season, after New York lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. The bags were loaded with pads and other gear, and then zipped and placed in each stall.
Finally, the room was clear except for one player: goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Entering the game, Lundqvist and the Rangers had gone 15-3 in their last 18 elimination games, including going 7-0 in Game 7s at home.
On Saturday night, that streak ended. Despite Lundqvist’s prior impressive numbers, he allowed a pair goals on Friday night, and the Rangers’ season came to a close. So as the bags were being packed, Lundqvist sat at his locker, answering questions, trying to make sense of what had transpired.
“It’s painful right now, it really is,” Lundqvist said. “You put your heart and soul into this entire year to try and get back and get an opportunity play in the Final and we were 20 minutes away.”
The game’s first goal, one Lundqvist said he knew entering the third period would be “extremely important,” came less than two minutes into the final frame. Lightning forward Alex Killorn skated around the faceoff circle with Rangers forward Dominic Moore trailing, and shoveled a backhanded pass to the net. The goal found its way through four bodies, and under the legs of Lundqvist.
“I never saw it until it was too late,” Lundqvist said. “There were just a lot of people in front of me… it was just one of those plays where they threw it in front and through screens.”
Despite the goals against, Lundqvist played well, and even said he felt sharp, and that he thought he was “tracking pucks well,” and reading plays well. On Friday night, it was the offense that struggled. After finishing the regular season third in the league in scoring, averaging 3.02 goals per game, the Rangers scored just four goals in four home games during the series.
In the last two home games of the series–Games 5 and 7–the Rangers did not score a goal. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said the difference in those games and Game 6 when the team scored seven in the victory, was that they were able to score early on the road, which opened the ice up. “The last two games at home, we weren't able to find the
space and generate the looks to get anything past their goaltender,” Vigneault said.
Rangers forward Martin St. Louis said he thought the team had chances, but after the Lightning scored the first goal, they sat back and made it even harder to generate offense.
“They get that first goal and they have numbers back. They make it hard,” St. Louis said. “Just like if we would have got that first goal, we would have been a lot harder to play against, just having numbers back. We always do, but when they have numbers back, you’ve got try to make plays under pressure, and it’s a tough thing in this league. Got to try to get shots through and there’s a lot of guys in front of that net.”
The loss and lack off offense was particularly hard because of the team’s performance at home, Rangers forward Carl Hagelin said, after winning the President’s Cup during the regular season and earning home ice for their playoff run. “We’ve got to play better at home,” Hagelin said. “We have home ice advantage, and we’ve got to make sure we put the puck in.”
“There are a lot of emotions,” Nash said. “I’m pretty upset. In a career you don’t get too many opportunities to play on a team like this and get that opportunity to win a championship. It’s pretty frustrating right now.”
The disappointment echoed through the locker room, but St. Louis noted that while the team is disappointed, after making in to the Stanley Cup finals a season ago, they know how hard it was to even get to this point. The team was “a couple bounces away,” according to Rangers defenseman Keith Yandle, and also had to deal with some injuries, including defenseman Ryan McDonagh playing with a broken foot for “a couple games,” and forward Mats Zuccarello missing two series after taking a puck to the head in round one.
“We’re all disappointed, for sure,” St. Louis said. “But it’s tough to get there. It is. We were fortunate to be there last year, and this year. I’m proud of this group. This group played hard. Guys are a tough group. Played through injuries, played through a lot of stuff. We can hold our heads high. We played hard, we just came up empty. It’s a tough feeling for everybody.”
Added Derek Stepan, “You put yourself in a game to be Eastern Conference Champs and a chance at the Cup again. You ask most guys in training camp if they would take that and we just came up a little short tonight. [I’m] nothing but proud of this group.”
Lightning down Rangers, advance to Stanley Cup Final