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 short-term pain was sharp last May 29 when the Rangers went out with a whimper against the Lightning in Game 7 of the NHL’s Eastern Conference final.

But even then, the hurt was complicated by a longer-term reality both fans and players understood, and it was this:

For a team that advanced to three conference finals in four years without a Stanley Cup to show for it, starting all over for the long march back to late spring can be a physical and psychological slog.

And here we are, eight months later, living it out in 2016 as the Rangers begin their week off for the All-Star break.

Since running out of steam following a 16-3-2 start, they continue to muddle along, neither very bad nor very good, neither here nor there, securely in the middle of the playoff picture but far from out of danger.

The last two games before the break illustrated things nicely.

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On Sunday they lost on the road to the Senators, 3-0, in a game so unsightly coach Alain Vigneault became so exasperated merely trying to explain it all that he walked away in the middle of his postgame news conference.

On Monday night they defeated the hapless Sabres, 6-3, in a game in which they had the better of the play throughout, blew a 3-1 lead in the third period, then blew right back to take control again, with Derick Brassard scoring four of his five points in the final period.

So the Rangers are 27-17-5, with three victories in four games and in second place in the Metropolitan Division. Again, not bad. Not bad at all.

There will be no Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular-season record, as there was last season. But none of that is the point.

Given their level of talent and experience and goaltending, the Rangers are capable of doing damage again if they quality for the playoffs. And they are quite capable of not doing anything. Who knows?

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Life and hockey are unpredictable. The 2013-14 Stanley Cup and Presidents’ Trophy winners both missed the playoffs last season. Stuff happens. The challenge is to stay interested while stuff is happening this time of year.

Someone asked Vigneault before Monday’s game that old standby of hot-button coaching questions, about whether the team needs to add more talent to be championship caliber.

“We’re right against the cap and that’s not my job,” he said. “My job, I’ve got players here, is to make them perform up to their potential.

“Obviously, I can say right now, I haven’t done that. I’ve got to make sure that I get this group to play to their full potential, and we have not done that.”

Harsh words for a better-than-average team, but understandable given the level of expectations.

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The victory over the Sabres was just what was needed with a week of off days ahead.

“Obviously, you’re going to have games like that,” captain Ryan McDonagh said of the debacle north of the border. “But we want to be consistent coming down past the halfway point of the season.”

Said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist: “This is the time of the year it starts to get exciting. I love the second half of the season. The points are more important, and the adrenaline goes up as you get closer to the end of the season.”

Closer, yes. But still four long months to go merely to get back to where they were last year.