Grind-it-out Rangers run out of time
It may seem funny, or a little arrogant, that John Tortorella and his Rangers thought they had Game 6 right where they wanted it.
Another ugly first period, another rally and, on this night, overtime, where any sort of freak play or goal-mouth scramble could end their seemingly endless playoff run.
But Tortorella felt as if this was the Rangers' game. They are a team that never thinks they're out of it. And when it's a tight, tactical match rather than a sprint, as it was through much of the third period Friday night, the Rangers feel as if that's in their wheelhouse, having played so many of these this season.
"I thought we were the better team," Tortorella said casually, not defiantly. "You could feel it on the bench. We were very comfortable as we played the last two periods.
"I thought it was going to be quick in OT. I thought it was going to be us."
The Rangers were not the better team throughout the Eastern Conference finals, and that was ultimately their undoing -- too many nights to battle back from deficits against the Devils, too many times to go into a shell and rely on Henrik Lundqvist to prop them up before sneaking through a late goal or two.
Their big guns, Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, struggled mightily against the Devils, two veterans who had the look of players who had gone the max, 20 playoff games in 44 days. The puck skittered through Richards' legs in the crease 63 seconds into overtime Friday night, with Adam Henrique jumping on it for the series winner.
There was plenty to be positive about, even in the watery-eyed locker room a few minutes after this season had ended for the Rangers. Ryan McDonagh, who played 53:17 in that triple-overtime Game 3 against the Caps last round, was a force Friday night, kick-starting the Rangers rally.
Chris Kreider still hasn't played a regular-season NHL game, but he already looks like an impact player. Lundqvist never looked tired and gave up perhaps two or three bad goals in the entire six weeks of the postseason; he was at the top of his game even though he fell short of the Finals.
And there is the coach, the Pied Piper of this team, inspiring all sorts of sacrifices and character plays by a group of Rangers who have no equal in the team's long history.
"I love our jam," Tortorella said. "I love our [guts]."
They have learned a lot over this 102-game season, and Rangers fans and the rest of the league have learned a lot about this team. It was fitting that it came down to the slimmest of margins -- a greasy, ugly goal to beat the greasiest, ugliest team in the NHL, the Devils just the latest team forced to get down in the muck with the Rangers and try to grind it out.
It is a style pooh-poohed in many corners of the league, by plenty of NHL-watchers who think blocking shots and finishing checks are aspects of a lesser sport, that games should be defined by skill and skill alone.
But that is playoff hockey in its purest form, and the Rangers tried to play it from October forward. They came within two wins of grinding their way to the Finals, one more ugly goal away from forcing a Game 7.
"It's a terrible feeling," McDonagh said. "You don't want to feel it again."
This team doesn't seem the sort to ignore this latest lesson.