Tampa — Chris Kreider sat up in his chair during the post-match press conference and tried with everything he had to remain calm, his eyes appearing to well up. To the right of the New York Rangers stood teammate Mika Zibanejad he leaned forward toward the microphone, his voice soft, his energy all gone.
“I feel like denying this now,” Zibanejad said. ‘I don’t 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 that built its season and entered the Stanley Cup Playoffs for its resilience, its ability to come back and beat the odds ran out of gas against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Rangers and Stanley Cup dreams season ended with a 2-1 loss in Game 6 at the Amalie Arena on Saturday. It ended with their first loss streak of four games of the season.
“Empty,” Kreider said of his emotions. “Of course very sad.”
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Over time, the Rangers will gain insight into what they have accomplished.
They will realize how important it is to reach the Eastern Conference final, that they are two wins away from the Stanley Cup final. They will understand that this season after a few years of rebuilding, they have come a long way.
They were legitimate contenders. Barring a catastrophe, they will be for many more seasons.
But now is not the time. Perspective doesn’t come to you 20 minutes after your season ends and your dreams are gone.
“At the moment it is not easy”, defender Jacob Trouba said. “Think about it and think about it, but not a good feeling right now.”
The Rangers played 20 games in 40 days in the playoffs. It took them seven games to knock out the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round and seven more to knock out the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.
They scored nine goals in winning the first two games against the Lightning. They even had a 2-0 lead in Game 3.
But the well dried up.
New York has scored one goal in each of its last three games, one on equal terms.
Coach Gerard Gallant said fatigue from a long playoff run, from playing every other day, was a factor.
“There’s no doubt it showed up,” he said. “No real breaks. I would have loved to get by tonight and have two days off. That would have been the first time. That would have been great. But it’s the way it goes.”
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Game 7 would have been Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers had to give more than they left behind in Game 6 to make it happen.
Tampa Bay controlled the game from start to finish, minus a quick blip when Frank Vatrano scored a power-play goal for New York to make it 1-1 at 1:07 PM of the third period.
Steven Stamkos scored 21 seconds later to give the Lightning a 2-1 lead.
The Rangers collected another shot on target in the last 6:32, and Artemi Panarin wrist shot from inside the left point that sent Vasilevskiy into the corner with his blocker.
“They’re a big, big defensive team,” Gallant said. “They make it difficult for you. They exclude you very well. And they do it well. Our focus was trying to fight to get there and it’s fatigue, I have no doubt about that.”
Zibanejad would not go there.
“There was no fatigue,” said the attacker. “I mean, these are the games we all want to play. I feel like we’ve had enough rest between games. It had nothing to do with fatigue.”
Then it had everything to do with the Lightning and how they defended the Rangers which made them look tired because they couldn’t get to the front of the net or generate anything from the rush.
Zibanejad has had no points in the last three games after having 13 (seven goals, six assists) in an eight-game points streak.
It was the same for defender Adam Fox: No points in last three games after having 13 (two goals, 11 assists) in an eight-game streak.
Kreider had no points in the last two games. He didn’t have a shot on target in Game 6.
Filip Chytil had no run in last four games; the forward had six (five goals, one assist) in the previous four.
Ryan Strome could not play in Game 4 due to a lower body injury. The attacker toiled through two periods on Saturday before finally having to close it due to the same injury.
“Obviously the guys got tired,” Trouba said. “It’s a lot of hockey in a short period of time. It’s tough, physical hockey too. Lots of guys putting in a brave effort to play with injuries and put it on the line.”
The Rangers felt like they could do it again, that they could force Game 7 with another show of their resilience.
They did it in the regular season with 27 comeback wins. They did it in the first round, trailing the Penguins 3-1 before coming back to win. They did it in the second round, coming back from a 3-2 deficit against the Hurricanes.
“I didn’t do it this round,” Kreider said.
The tank was empty.