Timely goals. That's what put the Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final against the Los Angeles Kings last season.
After locking up a playoff berth with a furious finish, they went on a surprising run, beating the Flyers, Penguins and Canadiens.
But they just couldn't get the timely goal against the resilient Kings. They lost three one-goal games -- two decided in the second overtime and one in the first OT -- and were shut out in the other.
This season, the regular-season journey wasn't easy. Backup goaltender Cam Talbot stepped in with a marvelous two months of play with Henrik Lundqvist injured. The Rangers finished with 113 points and the Presidents' Trophy and seemed poised to reach the Cup Final again.
This time they had home-ice advantage, and observers figured the Rangers surely would at least split the potential four games in New York.
But they didn't.
The same pattern emerged: The timely goals didn't come against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Especially not when it counted at home, in Game 5 and Game 7, when they were blanked by an inspired, savvy defensive effort and Ben Bishop, who had to stop only 48 shots.
"The last two games at home, we weren't able to find the space and generate the looks to get anything past their goaltender,'' coach Alain Vig- neault said.
The Rangers, the best road team in the league during the season, played well in Tampa but sputtered at home. In four games at Madison Square Garden in the Eastern Conference finals, the Rangers scored four goals, none after the second period of Game 2. On the road? They averaged 5.67 goals per game, scoring early and forcing the Lightning to chase.
Part of the issue was the lack of quality chances, and of course, the woes of the power play at home. They were 0-for-8 in Games 1, 5 and 7. Yes, they were 2-for-5 in Game 2, then allowed three goals in the third period.
To be fair, the experienced Rangers defense and Lundqvist faltered, allowing 12 goals on 66 shots in Games 2 and 3. The thinking going into the series was that Lundqvist would be the stopper. He played extremely well in the other five games, but those two games were not what the Rangers needed. In Game 3, for instance, Nikita Kucherov beat him with a stoppable shot for a 6-5 overtime win.
In Game 7, a soft shot by Alex Killorn was the first goal in a scoreless game. The Rangers' fortunes turned, and they were not resilient enough to get one back.
"Both teams were battling hard to try and create some chances, playing well defensively,'' Vigneault said, "and their first goal, their winning goal, obviously slipped through. The puck had eyes and went through a couple of bodies and went through Hank, so that turned out to be the winner.''
In short, the Lightning played and won two of the kind of games on which the Rangers built much of their style and season: Start with strong defense, eventually create chances and cash in.
"They found a way to play a good road game and really simplify their game and played well in their structure defensively,'' said Ryan McDonagh, who played for several games on a broken foot, an injury revealed after Game 7. "They didn't give us much in any of the games here.''
Speaking of injuries, would the Rangers' offense have been better with Mats Zuccarello healthy? Most likely. The Norwegian winger had two assists in five games before being accidentally struck in the head by McDonagh's point shot in Game 5 against the Penguins, and he never returned. Zuccarello had 15 goals and 49 points during the season.
And how much more of a difference would another goal by Rick Nash (who had five) or Martin St. Louis in Game 7 have meant? Instead, Nash had one shot on goal in 21:58. St. Louis seemed a step slow and scored only once in the postseason.
"Throughout a game, you always remember, 'I wish we scored on that opportunity,' but I can't really recall that type of chance where we felt we could have put ourselves in a good spot,'' said Lundqvist, speaking of Games 5 and 7. "It's painful right now, it really is. You put your heart and soul into this entire year to try and get back and get an opportunity to play in the Final and we were 20 minutes away."