NEW YORK, N.Y. - Rangers coach John Tortorella isn't satisfied with the franchise's longest post-season run since 1997.
"We're still a young club," he said Friday after a 3-2 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. "We still have quite a bit to learn as far as the desperation, when you get to this third round. You hear it so much, and I won't accept it. You know, you won a couple of rounds. You got into the third round. That isn't good enough. We still have to find a way to win another round and get there.
"I just don't want this organization to sit still and say, because prior it was barely getting into the playoffs, losing in the first round, maybe getting to the second round. We have to change our mindset to continue trying to be the best and learn that there's a lot more hockey to play after you go through a couple."
It will take time for the top-seeded Rangers to get over the loss to a local rival that finished seven points and three places behind them in the Atlantic Division. New York hasn't been back to the Stanley Cup finals since it won the championship in 1994.
Such expectations weren't there—at least outside their dressing room—way back in October when the Rangers began the season with post-regulation losses in Sweden against the Western Conference champion Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks and another defeat in New York against the Islanders.
But over the course of the next 79 games, the Rangers built their most impressive seasons in years, winning seven-game playoff series victories over Ottawa and Washington. New York was atop the Eastern standings from Dec. 30 until the end of the season.
"It doesn't feel right to be done now," 22-year-old defenceman Ryan McDonagh said. "It's a tough pill to swallow."
The Rangers (51-24-7) finished second in points only to the Vancouver Canucks, the Western Conference's top-seeded team that was eliminated in the first round by Los Angeles. Their 51 wins and 109 points were both the second most in team history.
"It felt like so many things that happened during the year made it feel like it was something special, like they were signs that something good was coming, something exciting," goalie Henrik Lundqvist said.
The Rangers have a good young core of players on offence and defence and are building a club they hope will be a consistent contender for years.
"I really like what we have here," Tortorella said. "I don't think it will be the same (team). There's always changes. But what they have, what our group has developed in their identity, their mindset, I think showed. We don't get it done, but I just like the way they handle themselves."
Tortorella and his players, many of whom had red, swollen eyes that reflected the disappointment of the sudden end of the promising season, were reluctant to discuss the big picture or even allow themselves to look past the pain of overtime.
Still, the Rangers watched the continued growth of McDonagh and fellow defencemen Marc Staal, who was solid once he recovered from a concussion that forced him to miss the first 36 games of the season, and Dan Girardi. Michael Del Zotto also had a good season before struggling in the playoffs.
Chris Kreider emerged in the post-season after he joined the team right after winning an NCAA hockey championship with Boston College. And young forwards such as Brandon Dubinsky, Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin also progressed.
Marian Gaborik improved by 19 goals over his second season with the Rangers and finished with a team-high 41. Brad Richards made good in his first year with the Rangers after signing a big free-agent deal, finishing second to Gaborik with 66 points. Captain Ryan Callahan was a stalwart throughout, blocking shots and leading by example.
But the offence dried up among the Rangers' top scorers once they got to the third round.
"Just like that, your season's over," Callahan said. "We fight hard all year. We fight back in (Game 6), showed a lot of character. It's a hard way to end it."
The 30-year-old Gaborik was held to only one goal against the Devils, and like his coach he refused to blame fatigue.
New York was only a .500 team throughout the post-season, going 10-10. The Rangers will have to increase their team speed and overall scoring and figure out how to contend with such a skilful forechecking team such as the Devils.
Lundqvist, who at 30 is a finalist for league MVP and for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goalie, was superb in the post-season.
"When it's over, it's such an empty feeling," Lundqvist said. "Even when you win, it's weird that it's over. I'm going to probably be pretty tired for a couple of weeks, sit down and reflect on what happened, try to learn something. It is shocking when it's over."
Lundqvist was fresher at the end because the Rangers limited his regular-season workload, using him in a career-low 62 games. The Swedish star posted a career-best 39 wins in his seventh NHL season with a 1.97 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage with eight regular-season shutouts. Even with the so-so finish in the final games against the Devils, Lundqvist posted a stellar 1.82 GAA and .931 save percentage in the post-season.
But Lundqvist still faces the reality that he hasn't stolen a playoff series yet for the Rangers. It won't make it easier that 40-year-old Martin Brodeur outdueled him and got the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals for the fifth time.
"All the work you put in for two months (of playoffs), eight months really, it hurts," Lundqvist said. "This is going to take a while to get over."