Devils center Michael McLeod reacts after scoring a goal behind Rangers defenseman...

Devils center Michael McLeod reacts after scoring a goal behind Rangers defenseman Adam Fox, right, during the second period of Game 7 of an NHL Stanley Cup first-round playoff series Monday in Newark, N.J. Credit: AP/Adam Hunger

 NEWARK

The better team won.

That is the hard truth for the Rangers, one that hurt plenty in the short term on Monday night and could continue to hurt into the near future.

The speedy, spunky Devils presented their case in the final five games of the teams’ first-round playoff series, and the closing argument came in Game 7.

It was a 4-0 decision at the Prudential Center that advanced the Devils to the second round against the Hurricanes and was so thorough that no one in the Rangers’ dressing room even made an attempt to sugarcoat it.

“I don’t think we played as well as them,” Mika Zibanejad said. “I thought they played a better game. We just didn’t match them . . . They were better than us.”

Captain Jacob Trouba said, “They beat us. I don’t think anybody quit on our team. I don’t think there was a lack of will or determination. I thought we fought to the end. Give them credit.”

After losing badly in the first two games, the Devils outplayed the Rangers for most of the next five, even with a little-known rookie named Akira Schmid in net. He allowed a total of two goals in his four victories.

The Devils were particularly dominant five-on-five, continually befuddling the more experienced Rangers.

And the Devils are not going anywhere, a Metropolitan Division rival with young talent that could be around for a while to make life difficult on the Rangers and Islanders.

While it was a competitive series, the loss was a huge blow to a Rangers franchise that last season reached Game 6 of the conference finals and had been aiming for more this season — with a roster constructed for that purpose.

“Every year you kind of have that same feeling,” Trouba said. “You don’t know how many kicks at the can you’re going to get.

“Tomorrow’s never given, especially in this league. It definitely stinks. It feels like we let an opportunity slip away. That’s hockey.”

Said Adam Fox, “It definitely feels like a missed opportunity for us.”

No one was more despondent afterward than Chris Kreider, the longest-tenured Ranger. He held his head in his hands at his locker, and when asked what went wrong, he thought for 15 seconds before answering.

He began by saying that he was “beating myself up pretty good.”

“I personally feel responsible for some of the goals they scored,” he said. “Being a veteran guy, I’m supposed to be defensively responsible.

“I can’t be on the ice for all four goals against and hurt us like that. Like I said, beating myself up pretty good.”

Kreider lost the puck to Ondrej Palat on the first Devils goal, a shorthanded one on which Palat found Michael McLeod in front. McLeod maneuvered around Igor Shesterkin to score 9:53 into the second period. That was all New Jersey needed.

Asked why the Rangers could not figure out how to get more pucks past the untested Schmid, Kreider said, “If I had that answer, we probably would have scored more goals.”

Where do the Rangers go from here? Well, most of the roster will remain intact other than a smattering of free agents, including two who were passing through in Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko.

(For all the hype surrounding the Kane acquisition, he was a disappointment.)

So there is no reason to expect a drastic fall-off come next autumn and winter.

But how will management react to coach Gerard Gallant not closing the deal in his second season at the helm? That is TBD.

It was not a good sign when general manager Chris Drury left the locker room after the game with a grim look on his face as he walked out of the arena.

It also was not a good sign when Gallant made a telling comment about his big-name, big-money roster.

Asked about losing despite all the talent at his disposal, he said, “I love to have talent, but you love to have a work ethic and more forecheck and stuff like that, and we just didn’t get it done.”

There will be even more pressure on the Rangers in 2023-24 to win their first Cup since 1994.

Thirty years is a long time for an organization with the resources and brand power of the Rangers. But 30 years it now will be, at least.

Newsday LogoYour Island. Your Community. Your News.Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months
ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME