Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

The Rangers have experienced all sorts of post-loss emotions during their long playoff march, from anger to frustration to sadness to surprise.

But a new tone wafted through corners of their dressing room last night: bafflement.

There were few clear explanations for what went wrong in a 2-0 loss to the Lightning in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals at the Garden. It left the Rangers down 3-2 in the series and needing a two-game winning streak to survive.

Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who has played in 108 postseason games, went so far as to say, "We played well."

Hmm. Here's one man's theory: The reason the Rangers struggled to come up with reasons was the most troubling reason of all -- that the Lightning simply is the better team.

Does that mean the Rangers can't rally and advance to the Stanley Cup Final? Heck, no. Far stranger things have happened in the NHL in recent years, including to the Rangers themselves.

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But something about this predicament feels different, certainly compared to the second-round series against the Capitals in which the Rangers were 1:41 from elimination and had to win three games in a row to advance.

There never was a sense that the Blueshirts were the inferior team in that matchup.

In this one? Well, consider that the Rangers' only victory in their past four games came Friday night in Game 4. It was one the Lightning somehow lost, 5-1, despite a 19-6 advantage in shots in the second period and the better of the play overall until things got out of hand late.

Check out this telling Marc Staal comment after Game 5: "It wasn't like last game. I think we controlled the puck and the play and just weren't able to continually create enough to score."

In other words, in many ways the Rangers played better in a 2-0 loss in Game 5 than they had in a 5-1 win in Game 4. And lost.

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You can't blame the Rangers for being discouraged.

Yes, they did a lousy job on the power play after scoring two power-play goals in each of the previous three games.

But the high-powered Lightning frustrated them at every turn. It was no surprise that both of the visitors' goals came on a series of sweet passes. It's what they do.

It made the hurt more painful that they also played airtight defense, blocking 24 shots and helping Ben Bishop earn a shutout.

Ben Bishop!

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The guy had allowed 10 goals in the previous two games and widely was starting to be viewed as a weak link. After Sunday's morning skate, he was peppered with questions about his psychological state, and he insisted he was fine. Apparently so.

When Tampa Bay gets that kind of defense to go along with an offense led by the hottest player in the series, Steven Stamkos -- six goals in his past seven games -- and the most talented top two lines the Rangers have seen this spring . . . look out.

"We've been in this situation before," Derek Stepan said. "It's not ideal. But this is where we're at."

Said Lundqvist: "There's no other way for us right now but to really leave everything out there. You don't want any regrets. We know we can beat the team down there, but they're going to come hard and they're playing well in their own building."

Again, to be clear: It's not over. Hockey is the most unpredictable of the major sports, and the Rangers have plenty of talent and spunk and a vast trove of experience in these situations -- including those three elimination games just this month.

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But the Lightning is not the Penguins or the Capitals. The Bolts simply are better than those teams. And they are better than the Rangers.