GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) Three days after squandering a chance to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight season, the New York Rangers’ disappointment and frustration was still there for all to see.
They not only failed to score with the final just 20 minutes away in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden against the Tampa Bay Lightning Friday night, they allowed two goals in a 2-0 loss. They played a horrible period with hockey’s biggest prize on the horizon.
And it hurt. Players were still confused Monday as the team gathered for their end-of-season meetings with coach Alain Vigneault at their Westchester training facility.
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This was the team that posted the NHL’s best regular-season record. The team that had home-ice advantage. The group that felt this was its year to win the Cup.
It was all there for the taking, and they didn’t take it.
”It has been tough to sleep the past few nights, just thinking about the players we have,” said Rick Nash, who scored 42 goals. ”It’s one of the best teams I have ever played on. It’s been a really frustrating two days to try to digest this feeling.”
Even Vigneault was at a loss after meeting with his players, insisting the lingering emotions made it impossible for him to put some perspective on the season that saw the Rangers post a franchise-record 113 points.
The loss was so bad that Vigneault said his 22-year-old daughter, Janie, sobbed uncontrollably for hours after the game.
This was supposed to be the Rangers’ year. This was supposed to be the season they brought the Cup back to New York for the first time since 1994.
They lost the finals in five games to the Kings last season, but they were in every game. After losing Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle to free agency in the offseason, there were question marks early in the season, but youngsters like Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast, Cam Talbot and young veterans like Derek Stepen, Chris Kreider and Derick Brassard stepped up, and this team discovered it could win again and again. The confidence only grew during the season and it seemed to reach a high when they rallied from a 3-1 deficit against Washington in the conference semifinals.
”Last year we were even closer and it was tough the way it ended in overtime,” goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, 34, said. ”But with the group we had this year, and I think the skill and determination we also had, it’s disappointing to come up short.”
The Rangers, who have played in the conference finals three of the past four years, still have a young team and their window of opportunity to hold The Cup. The only major unrestricted free agent is Martin St. Louis, who will turn 40 in a couple of weeks. The fact that he hinted at his age might indicate that he will consider retiring.
Stepan, Fast, Miller and Carl Hagelin are all restricted free agents, with Stepan in line to get a big contract.
”We know we’ve played a lot of good hockey over the last four years,” Stepan said. ”We’ve just got to find that extra push to pass over the hump to the next step.”
Vigneault said that what made him proudest this season was that his team showed up every game and worked.
”We have been knocking at the door. We’re getting close to the hump and we’re almost ready to get over,” he said. ”If you ask me do I believe in this group: My answer is yes.”
His players feel the same way.
”We keep the team together we are going to have a chance every year,” defenseman Dan Girardi said. ”The way the team is built, we have hankie in net, a great D corps and great forwards, so we’re set up to do some good long runs.”
The question is whether the Rangers can take those last steps next season.
”It’s been something that I have been dreaming about for a long time,” Lundqvist said.