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Anything short of a title would have hollow ring to it for Rangers

The New York Rangers leave the ice after

The New York Rangers leave the ice after losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-0, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 24, 2015. Credit: Getty Images / Bruce Bennett

TAMPA, Fla. - Henrik Lundqvist had the best grasp of things, as usual, only this time with a shared thought rather than a glove save.

It was in the losing dressing room at the Garden on Sunday night, and the goaltender was talking about what the Rangers face, starting with a win-or-else Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals here Tuesday night.

"There's no other way for us right now but to really leave everything out there," he said. "You don't want any regrets."

That last word is the key one. If the Rangers do not "change the ending," as their playoff rallying cry goes, and win the Stanley Cup for the second time in 75 years, they might well lament these lost opportunities forever.

Just ask the 1990s Knicks or Mike Piazza-era Mets or early-Rex Ryan Jets or, heck, a lot of pretty darn strong Rangers teams from the 1970s and '80s what it's like to be good-but-not-championship-winning great in this town.

In short: It's good. But it's not great.

The Rangers have been the most consistently successful New York-area team of a decade now halfway over, but if this is all there is, will three conference finals and one Cup Final in four years have been enough?

Let me answer that question with a question:

Would fans of the Giants, a team that only occasionally bothers to make the playoffs, give back their Super Bowl XLII and XLVI trophies in exchange for a team that wins a playoff game or two every season, but never the big one?

Of course, even if the Rangers do not somehow manage to win six more games this spring, they will return a strong core for 2015-16 and can try again.

But it is more likely that they will take a step back, simply based on the law of NHL averages, in which neither last season's Stanley Cup winner nor Presidents' Trophy winner so much as made the playoffs this spring.

So by all means, celebrate the fact that the Rangers will play their 75th playoff game in the past four seasons Tuesday night, the most in the NHL in that span. And that they are the only team in the league to win a playoff series in each of the past four seasons.

But all of that will ring hollow if some other team's names are etched into the rings of the Cup once again this year.

The immediate problem: The Lightning is better than the Capitals team the Rangers ousted in the previous round after rallying from a 3-1 deficit. In winning three of the past four games, Tampa Bay has looked even more formidable and versatile than advertised.

"It's a lot of fun to watch, just to see the progression from training camp until now," Lightning coach and former Hofstra lacrosse player Jon Cooper said Monday. "They're a fine-oiled machine right now, and it's just fun to be part of it."

The Rangers arrived back here hoping that being on the brink of the Stanley Cup Final might cause overexuberance on the part of the young-skewing Lightning -- and that the Rangers' vast experience in these situations will benefit them.

"We don't really panic," said Derek Stepan, one of three players chosen to speak to reporters at the team hotel.

Said Marc Staal: "We've had a number of games where it's been win or go home, and I think we have a lot of guys in the room who thrive in a situation like that where you have to be at your best to win a hockey game . . . We're a tough out."

But no matter how relaxed they might be about their predicament, the reality is that the heat will be on Tuesday night, both in the steamy outdoors and inside the chilled rink.

These Rangers have proved many times over that they are good. Greatness? It remains six victories away.

New York Sports