New York Rangers center Derek Stepan (21) reacts after his shot was stopped by Washington Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth during the third period in Game 5 of a first-round NHL Stanley Cup hockey playoff series on Saturday, April 23, 2011, in Washington. Capitals won 3-1 and won the series. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
NEW YORK, N.Y. - When the New York Rangers look back at this season, two key moments will surely stand out: one will make them smile; the other will cause them to cringe.
The happy memory will be of their regular-season-ending win over the New Jersey Devils that kept them alive in the playoff chase long enough for Tampa Bay to beat Carolina hours later and put them into the post-season as the No. 8 seed.
However, their stay in the playoffs, after a one-year absence, was painfully quick.
That didn't seem likely Wednesday night when the Rangers carried a 3-0 lead into the third period of Game 4 at raucous Madison Square Garden and seemed to be well on their way to tying the series with the top-seeded Washington Capitals.
Armed with a 29-0 regular-season mark when leading after 40 minutes, the Rangers might have been looking ahead when the Capitals caught them with three third-period goals. New York then lost when top-line forward Marian Gaborik's ill-timed crease-clearing attempt went right to Jason Chimera for the winning goal in double overtime.
The shock and daunting 3-1 hole made the Rangers' elimination inevitable. That came three days later when New York fell 3-1 in Game 5 at Washington.
"The fourth game, we had them," Gaborik said. "A 3-0 lead, and then there was a point maybe it went the other way. We were coming in with confidence. We battled to the end. It's too bad it didn't work out."
New York led the Capitals in the third period in three of the five games, but won only one. Two of the four losses were overtime defeats.
"It really bugs me the way we didn't find a way to win those games we had an opportunity," said Henrik Lundqvist, who has earned at least 30 wins in each of his first six NHL seasons—an NHL record. "It bothers me a lot."
Lundqvist slammed his goalie stick against the boards as he left the ice after Game 4, and then sat on the bench in the closing minutes of Game 5 with his mask on and head in his hands. He sat dejectedly in the Rangers' dressing room after time ran out on another disappointing season and took a few moments to gather his thoughts before fielding questions.
One he couldn't answer was how this season would and should be evaluated. Yes, the Rangers returned to the playoffs, but not advancing was a major letdown.
"Too early to tell," he said.
The Rangers do have a young, promising core group of players up front, on defence, and in goal with Lundqvist to suggest they are building toward something bigger.
Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Michael Sauer, Ryan McDonagh, and the still-developing Michael Del Zotto appear to be a solid fivesome on defence to support forwards Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan—who were three of New York's top four scorers this season.
Callahan was lost to a broken leg in the final week of the season. He was second on the team with 23 goals and 48 points. New York mustered only eight goals against the Capitals, including just two in three losses at Washington.
After 42 goals and 86 points in his first season with New York, Gaborik dipped to 22 goals and 48 points in an injury-plagued and disappointing second year.
Gaborik was held to one goal and one assist in the playoffs.
"Obviously, the season hasn't been what was expected," he said. "It's definitely disappointing, especially now when we lost."
With three seasons remaining on Gaborik's deal at US$7.5 million per year, the Rangers will need him to be healthy and to regain his scoring touch if they are to become a playoff threat.
In the two-plus seasons under coach John Tortorella, the Rangers have two first-round losses to Washington—including one in 2009 in which New York squandered a 3-1 series lead. Last season, the Rangers failed to make the playoffs when they were beaten in a season-ending shootout against Philadelphia.
"I don't think our team is fully built yet," Tortorella said. "You've got to remember where the Washington team was for a number of years. You look at how their team was built with the draft picks. We're not there yet. We're not as far as talent."
Dallas Stars centre Brad Richards, long coveted by the Rangers, will be available on the free agent market and could be a target of general manager Glen Sather if they can get him in under the salary cap.
Since Sather took over as GM in 2000, the Rangers have missed the playoffs in six of 10 seasons and have won only two post-season series—reaching the second round in 2007 and 2008.
With the way the power play struggled late (1 for 27 in the final nine games of the regular season and 1 for 20 in the playoffs), defenceman Bryan McCabe will likely leave via free agency. He was brought in at the trade deadline to quarterback the unit.
Fellow defenceman Steve Eminger, who was scratched for every game of the Washington series, will probably also be moving on.
"Special teams are huge and we haven't come up with any goals," said Gaborik, whose troubles also contributed to the ineffectiveness.
Forward Alex Frolov, who had seven goals in 43 games in his first season with the Rangers before a knee injury, isn't expected to return, either. New York will likely try to re-sign veteran forwards Ruslan Fedotenko and Vinny Prospal, who both provided key offence. All three are eligible for unrestricted free agency.
The 36-year-old Prospal surprised many—including Tortorella—with the way he returned from knee surgery in February and put up nine goals and 23 points in 29 games.