As much as one would like to believe it, there is no "deserve" in sports. With championships on the line, only the results are remembered.
The Rangers' playoff run made people take notice. But when the winding road ends abruptly, as it did in double overtime on Friday night, there is little time for perspective. What remains is the emotional chasm between accomplishment and anguish.
After a long, captivating run to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years that wrested the back pages from the Yankees and Mets for six weeks -- and stole some hearts along the way -- the Rangers came up just short in their unlikely journey to Los Angeles, a city where sometimes even the best scripts never make it to the theaters.
"It's been a game of inches the whole series," said defenseman Dan Girardi, sitting stunned, in full gear, at his locker while the Kings were on ice with the Cup, celebrating their 3-2 double-overtime victory that ended a remarkable five-game Final. Four games were decided by a goal and three were won in overtime -- two in a second overtime.
"Bounce here, a bounce there," Girardi said ruefully. "I guess it just wasn't meant to be for us. We had a heck of a year, but this one's definitely going to leave a sour taste for a while."
After surviving a jagged seven-game opener in the first round against the Flyers, the Rangers came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Penguins as Martin St. Louis found refuge in his new teammates after his mother's death. In the Eastern Conference finals, they dispatched the Canadiens in six, then had to regroup against a team that had been toughened by three straight Game 7 road wins and whose core had been strengthened since its Cup win two years ago.
The Rangers, who were Final neophytes, needed a split in Los Angeles against the favored Kings and came back to New York without one, falling in overtime twice despite taking four two-goal leads in the two games.
Drained, they couldn't revive in a pivotal Game 3 at Madison Square Garden. They were blanked 3-0 by Jonathan Quick and a determined Kings defense, and the plot was all but written.
In a last stand on Seventh Avenue, led by Henrik Lundqvist's 40 saves, the Rangers refused to allow the Kings to hoist the Cup at the Garden, winning Game 4, 2-1, and forcing another trip to Staples Center.
Then the Kings wore them down, just as they had done with the heavyweights of the Western Conference: the Sharks, the Ducks and the defending champion Blackhawks. For the third time in three games in Los Angeles, the Rangers led but couldn't hold on.
After his 48-save performance Friday night, Lundqvist sat at his corner locker and hung his head between his outstretched legs, taking almost a half-hour before speaking.
"They have a good team. They're so balanced. You have to give them credit,'' he said, red-eyed and regretful. "But we could have won all three in this building. I said at the beginning of the playoffs, I didn't want to leave anything out there. I feel like I wanted to do everything I could to help this team. It was not enough.''
Marc Staal was equally discouraged. "You get this far and you do so much,'' he said. "I've never felt any worse than how I'm feeling.''
Nearby was St. Louis, who replaced captain Ryan Callahan in the March 5 trade with Tampa Bay and scored eight goals in the postseason. "This is a fresh wound,'' said St. Louis, who won the Cup 10 years ago and also knows the pain of elimination. "I'm proud of every guy in the room. We fought hard. We had chances in overtime. We hit a couple posts.''
Oh, those posts. The Rangers will be haunted by the dull ring of rubber and iron. Ryan McDonagh just missed winning it in the first overtime when his blast from the top of the left circle beat Quick and struck the far post. On a power play early in the second overtime, Mats Zuccarello's deflection of Girardi's shot also hit the pipe.
But there were better memories, too. Coach Alain Vigneault accomplished more than could be reasonably expected in his first year behind the Rangers' bench, bringing a renewed sense of class and professionalism, and his team improved as the season rolled on. The Rangers rose up after playoff losses (5-2 in Philadelphia, and 7-4 in Montreal) to advance.
Before the Final, the 53-year-old Quebec native had warned that the Kings are "one of the best teams I've seen in a long time,'' but he never swayed in his belief that the tide could turn.
It didn't, and by no means is that the fault of the Rangers. Perhaps it's because the resilient Kings remind some of a former dynasty.
"They're well-built,'' said former Rangers captain Dave Maloney, now a broadcaster. "They're like the Islanders teams we played in the playoffs; they can play any way you want and beat you a lot of ways. You think, 'We're playing well,' and you turn around and the series is over.''
Although the NHL has changed drastically, to Maloney, some comparisons are valid: quality coaching (Al Arbour/Darryl Sutter; aggressive, solid goaltending (Billy Smith /Quick); a star defenseman (Denis Potvin/Drew Doughty), strong down the middle (Bryan Trottier, Butch Goring, Bob Bourne, Wayne Merrick/Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards), a sniper (Mike Bossy/Marian Gaborik), plus contributions from unexpected sources (Ken Morrow/Alec Martinez). And a Sutter thread runs through both (Duane/Brent and Darryl).
History aside, the Rangers, who finished 12th overall, earned the attention and the accolades. And what we really learned from the Islanders last year and the Rangers this spring is this: In the new NHL, just make the playoffs and anything might happen.