Rangers players remain on the plastic victory rat-littered ice after...

Rangers players remain on the plastic victory rat-littered ice after they lost to the Florida Panthers in Game 6, with the Panthers winning the Eastern Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. Credit: AP/Lynne Sladky

  SUNRISE, Fla.

Tune back in this time next year for a final assessment on this Rangers season.

Tune back in to see how (if?) general manager Chris Drury fortifies his core roster to compete better against meaner opponents. Tune back in to see how a second loss in the Eastern Conference final in three seasons sticks in their craw and, one would think, bitterly motivates them.

“It stinks,” said Barclay Goodrow, who won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Lightning in 2020 and 2021, after the Rangers’ season ended with a 2-1 loss to the Panthers in Saturday night’s Game 6 at Amerant Bank Arena. “It stinks.”

So tune back in to see if falling six wins short of their first Stanley Cup since 1994, after winning the Presidents’ Trophy with the most regular-season points in the NHL, is an apex for this group or just a step in the process.

All that unavailable context is needed.

For right now, this just feels like a giant disappointment despite all the highs the Rangers had in 2023-24 in their first season under coach Peter Laviolette.

They just couldn’t solve the Panthers — who will make a return trip to the Cup Final after losing in five games to Vegas last season — and their more physical play and their tighter defense.

“Everyone expected to go further,” said Artemi Panarin, who snapped an eight-game goal drought with a rising wrist shot at 18:20 of the third period to halve the Panthers’ lead with the Rangers skating six-on-five. “But it is what it is. The games were tight.

“Everyone is a professional on our team. We’re going to use this experience again. Be stronger. Practice harder in the summer and try to play better next year to go farther.”

The Rangers also advanced to the conference final in 2022 in their first season under coach Gerard Gallant, losing to the Lightning in six games after winning the first two.

They followed that 110-point regular season with 107 points in 2022-23 and seemed poised for another long playoff run, one that presumably would build off their three-round journey. Instead, the upstart Devils eliminated (some might say embarrassed) the Rangers in seven games. That soon cost the defiant Gallant his job.

So now the Rangers start that process again of trying to go further in Laviolette’s second season.

There will be change, as forwards Jack Roslovic, Alex Wennberg and Blake Wheeler and defensemen Erik Gustafsson and Chad Ruhwedel are unrestricted free agents.

The question is, does Drury work around the margins or make more substantial changes? Does he go big and find a high-priced talent to skate on Mika Zibanejad’s and Chris Kreider’s right wing? Even if that becomes Alexis Lafreniere’s spot — and the emerging star’s play during the postseason certainly points to that — what will Drury do to replace Lafreniere on Vincent Trocheck’s line with Panarin?

Has Kaapo Kakko, a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, come to the end of his Broadway run?

And what to do with Panarin, if anything?

He rightfully was on at least the fringe of the conversation for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP after notching career highs with 49 goals and 120 points and playing all 82 games.

Yet it was a second straight underwhelming playoffs for No. 10 with five goals and 10 assists in 16 games. But all but one of those goals and five of the assists came in the first seven games of this postseason as the Rangers swept the overmatched Capitals in the first round, then took a 3-0 series lead on the Hurricanes.

The Rangers lost six of their last nine playoff games, with just Saturday’s late third-period goal from Panarin, which seemed too little, too late.

Also, Anton Lundell blocked his shot, leaving him unable to get back effectively to backcheck on Vladimir Tarasenko’s goal off the rush to make it 2-0 at 9:08 of the third period.

“When there’s a lot more on the line, guys are defending harder, blocking more shots, eliminating mistakes that might lead to offense,” Goodrow said. “We always talk about a five-man unit on the ice. It really takes everyone to create plays when teams are playing better defense.”

The Rangers came upon a better defensive team in the Panthers and a more physical team. A team that never gave up on the 50-50 puck battles.

Only when it’s revealed how the Rangers and Drury assess their weak spots and learn from them can the heartbreak of this season truly be addressed.

“No real answers right now,” captain Jacob Trouba said. “Nobody gave up. We just came up short.

“It felt special this year. It felt like we had something in this room.”

They very well still may have that.

Tune back in this time next year to find out.

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