TAMPA– Chris Kreider sat up in his chair at the post-match press conference, trying to keep his composure as hard as he could when his eyes seemed to tear. Right from the New York Rangers was a teammate Mika Zibanejad He leaned toward the microphone, his voice low, his energy gone.
“I want to deny that right now,” said Zibanejad. “I do not know. I honestly don’t have much to say. Just empty. I don’t want it to be over.”
It’s over for the Rangers.
The team, which built its season and came back to its resilience and ability to beat odds in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, ran out of gas in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Rangers season and Stanley Cup dreams ended with a 2-1 loss in Game 6 at the Amalie Arena on Saturday. It ended with the first losing streak in four games of the season.
“Empty,” Kreider said of his feelings. “Of course very sad.”
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Over time, the Rangers will have an overview of what they have accomplished.
You’ll realize how important it is to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, two wins away from the Stanley Cup Finals. You’ll understand that after a few years of rebuilding, they’ve arrived in a big way this season.
They were legitimate contenders. Barring a catastrophe, they will be for many seasons to come.
But now is not that time. Perspective doesn’t come to you 20 minutes after the season ends and your dreams are dashed.
“It’s not easy at the moment,” said defender Jacob Trouba said. “Think about it and reflect, but not a good feeling right now.”
Rangers played 20 games in 40 days in the playoffs. It took them seven games to eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round and seven more to get past the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.
They scored nine goals as they won their first two games against the Lightning. In Game 3 they even took a 2-0 lead.
But the well dried up.
New York have scored one goal in each of their last three games, one at even strength.
Coach Gerard Gallant said fatigue from a long playoff run of playing every other day was a factor.
“There’s no doubt it showed up,” he said. “No real breaks. I would have liked to get through tonight and have two days off. That would have been the first time. That would have been great.
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Game 7 would have been at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.
Rangers had to give more than they had left in Game 6 to make that happen.
Tampa Bay controlled the game from start to finish, barring one brief slip Frank Vatrano scored a power play goal for New York to level it 1–1 at 1:07 p.m. of the third period.
Steven Stamko scored 21 seconds later to give the Lightning a 2-1 lead.
The Rangers scored another shot on goal in the final 6:32 Artemi Panarin Wrist shot from the inside into the left point, which Vasilevskiy sent into the corner with his blocker.
“They’re a big, big defensive team,” Gallant said. “They make it difficult for you. They box you out really well. And they do a good job. Our focus has been fighting to get there and it’s fatigue, there’s no doubt about that.”
Zibanejad would not go there.
“There was no fatigue,” said the striker. “I mean, those are the games we all want to play. I feel like we rested enough between games. It had nothing to do with tiredness.”
Then it was all about the Lightning and how they defended the Rangers and made them look tired because they couldn’t get to the top of the net or generate anything from the rush.
Zibanejad has had no points in their last three games, having recorded 13 (seven goals, six assists) in an eight-game points streak.
It was the same with the defender Adam Fox: no points in last three games, having recorded 13 (two goals, 11 assists) in an eight-game points streak.
Kreider had no points in the last two games. In Game 6 he had no shot on goal.
Philip Chytil haven’t had a point in their last four games; The forward had six (five goals, one assist) in the previous four.
Ryan Strome was unable to play in Game 4 due to a lower body injury. The forward had to endure two periods on Saturday before finally being forced to pull out due to the same injury.
“Obviously the guys were getting tired,” Trouba said. “It’s a lot of hockey in a short amount of time. It’s also tough, physical hockey. A lot of guys are making brave efforts to play with injuries and get it on the line.”
Rangers felt they could do it all over again, that they could force Game 7 with another show of resilience.
They did it in the regular season with 27 comeback wins. They made it in the first round, beating the Penguins 3-1, before coming back to win. They made it in the second round, coming back from a 2-3 deficit against the Hurricanes.
“Didn’t make it this round,” said Kreider.
The tank was empty.