GREENBURGH, N.Y. - The New York Rangers had the best record in the Eastern Conference and reached the conference finals on the strength of a tough defence, great goaltending and a relentlessly rugged style.
What they lacked, and what ultimately led them to being ousted by the New Jersey Devils on Friday in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final, was some more scoring to go with all that grit.
The Rangers finished the regular season ranked 11th in the NHL in goals scored with an average of 2.71 goals per game. That number dropped during the playoffs to 2.15 goals per game. The Rangers scored more than three goals in a playoff game only once, and that was in the first round against Ottawa.
"I think we have made improvements but I don't think any organization in the league wants to sit still," coach John Tortorella said. "We have to continue to improve as an organization, not just skill but all throughout."
The Rangers have $49.1 million in player salaries earmarked for next season. With the salary cap expected to max out around $76 million and the organization's usual willingness to spend, it would be no surprise if New York made a run at unrestricted free agent stars Zach Parise of New Jersey and Ryan Suter of Nashville.
"Sometimes when you think it's a really good piece but he doesn't exactly fit in all the little things you do, you can teach him those things if he really brings you something else," Tortorella said. "We have to work extremely hard to score goals. Along the way if there's something that can help, you find a way to teach your concept (to a player and) allow some talent to let (him) work for you."
Tortorella warned the organization "will not lose the premise," of being a physical, defensive-oriented team no matter which new players are added.
"People have to join in," Tortorella said.
Managing the cap will be delicate as the Rangers have 11 free agents, including backup goaltender Martin Biron, right wing Brandon Prust and defenceman Michael Del Zotto. Defenceman Ryan McDonagh and forwards Artem Anisimov, Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin can become restricted free agents after next season.
"I love it here and we have a good thing going," Prust said. "I would love to be back. Obviously money is a factor, but it's not the biggest factor for me. Being a big part of a winning team, and that's something we have here, is what I want."
Collectively, the Rangers expressed pride in the fact that they were able to win their first division for the first time in 18 years and reached the conference finals for the first time in 13 seasons. They also expressed their belief that they can win a Stanley Cup Championship. Yet the emotional wound from losing 3-2 in overtime to the Devils was still fresh.
"It's an empty feeling," forward Brad Richards said. "It will be for a while."
NOTES: While saying he "loves the guys," free agent right wing Mats Zuccarello said that he does not want play under a "two-way" contract and admitted he has "other options." It had been speculated over the weekend that Zuccarello was going to sign with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL. ... Tortorella said he saw defenceman Michael Sauer "for the first time in months," during the team's end of season meetings. Sauer suffered a season-ending concussion from a hit by Toronto defenceman Dion Phaneuf on Dec. 5. Tortorella said he was not confident about Sauer being ready for training camp. ... Assistant coach Mike Sullivan has been linked to the Calgary Flames' head coaching vacancy. While Tortorella said Sullivan "is a huge part of this organization," he added that his top assistant, "should be a head coach in this league." .. Brandon Dubinsky said he suffered a high ankle sprain against Ottawa.
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