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Henrik Lundqvist couldn't find the magic one more time

New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist looks on after

New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist looks on after losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden on Friday, May 29, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

He just sat there, looking straight ahead, then looking downward. Henrik Lundqvist was at his stall in the locker room, still wearing his big red, white and blue goalie pads, not wanting to let go of another season. There were a lot of puck stains on those pads, reminders of a ton of huge saves.

Still, it was not enough. Another chance to win the Stanley Cup had just slipped away, and the 33-year-old Rangers goalie has to know there is no telling how many more chances he will get.

"It's painful right now, it really is. You put your heart and soul into this entire year, to try to get an opportunity to play in the final. And we were 20 minutes away," he said after the Lightning beat the Rangers, 2-0, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. It will be Tampa Bay that will be playing for the Cup.

"We're right there. It's a great group to be part of. This year was not enough. We were so close. That's what makes it special to go through this," he said, "but it's also extremely tough when you don't come up with the result."

So much had been made of the Rangers' perfect record in Game 7 opportunities at home, and of Lundqvist's nearly flawless record in elimination games, that it seemed almost a foregone conclusion that he and they would win one more. But the Lightning essentially beat the Rangers at their own game -- playing strong and alert defense, making it the first priority not to make any mistakes.

After the morning skate, Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, the goalie's Swedish countryman, had said that, yes, he had read about the way Lundqvist always comes up big in situations like this. Hedman described the strategy this way: "Make life hard for him, don't let him see pucks too much."

That is exactly what the Lightning did at 1:54 of the third period, breaking the scoreless tie on Alex Killorn's backhander through traffic. "I never saw it until it was too late," Lundqvist said. "There were just a lot of people in front of me."

When Ondrej Palat scored at 11:17, the goalie sensed big trouble. "It's just me talking,'' he said, "but it felt like the entire building kind of died."

There was a lot of life in the Garden during the handshake line, though, when the crowd saluted another stellar season from the team's most important player. There was a loud chant of "Hen-rik!"

"As a fan, they see what we go through. They go through it as well emotionally," said the man who lifted the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final last year and through the first two rounds this season. Winning the Presidents' Trophy for the best regular-season record didn't make it more painful: "I honestly don't care at all about the regular season,'' he said. "When the playoffs start, it's a new season and you start over."

Now he faces the ordeal of starting all over next year, in a league dotted with confident young teams that do not take Game 7 wins by the Rangers for granted. Earlier Friday, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said of Lundqvist, "He has never played the Tampa Bay Lightning in a Game 7 before."

Said Lundqvist, "You appreciate every moment, you really do." But he added, "We feel like we had the team to do it, but at the same time, there's a lot of good teams out there that feel the same way."

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