GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Instead of getting ready for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, in what would surely have been a rocking Madison Square Garden, the New York Rangers quietly packed up their lockers and headed toward summer vacation.
The pain and disappointment of Friday night’s season-ending loss to the Los Angeles Kings was still palpable Monday as players went through exit interviews at the team’s suburban practice facility, but one by one they took positive looks back on their unexpected postseason.
After all, it had been 20 years since the Rangers played with the Cup on the line.
“It’s a little early,” star goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. “I am proud of the team and what we did and how we overcame different challenges — not only in the past couple of months but throughout the entire season.
“We have a lot to be happy about, but right now you’re still disappointed about not winning.”
Had they been able to score in overtime on Friday or in either of the first two games of the finals in Los Angeles — which were both decided in overtime — New York would have hosted Game 6 on Monday night.
The series would have been 3-2, one way or the other, and Rangers fans would have been firmly behind their club as it moved closer to a championship.
“The last two or three days have been even worse than today,” forward Carl Hagelin said. “Now it’s kind of faded off. It’s enough crying now. You can’t cry much more.
“It could’ve been a game tonight, but we’re going to have to live another day.”
The Rangers have reached the conference finals in two of the past three seasons, and now have taken it a step further. Only a few veterans in their room, such as Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis, had gotten to the finals before this run.
The collective experience they now share as a group could bode well.
“It’s hard to swallow right now, but give it a couple of weeks,” forward Derek Stepan said. “I think we’ll look back and we’ll see how much fun we had as a group and be able to look at it and say, ‘Hey, we played some really good hockey.’
“We’ve got a good balance of guys. The organization did a good job of building this team, getting the young guys and getting the old guys. We’ve got a good blend.”
As is always the case at the end of the season, changes will be made before the team gets back together for training camp in about three months.
One player who likely won’t be there is Richards, who has become a prime candidate to have his contract bought out by the Rangers to give the club much needed salary cap relief. New York has one remaining amnesty buyout available, and it must be used by July 1.
The cap room that would be saved by getting Richards’ contract off the books could go a long way to signing potential free agents the Rangers have and others who could come in from other teams.
“We’re going to work on putting a good team on the ice, but every year is different,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “Next year’s team is going to be different, and you’ve got to go through the same process. It’s going to be a challenge to make the playoffs, and then you take it one series at a time.”
Richards took on a bigger leadership role after captain Ryan Callahan was traded to Tampa Bay for St. Louis in March. His voiced carried in the room even as his play declined as the playoff run got deeper.
Vigneault limited his ice time to fourth-line minutes in the final two games against Los Angeles.
“If you look at Brad’s overall season he had a real good year,” Vigneault said. “In the final series, I don’t know if it was a combination of some other guys might have been playing a little bit better than he was, but we had some decisions to make in Game 4 and Game 5.”
No decision on Richards’ status had been made by Monday afternoon, and he didn’t speak to reporters to discuss what might lie ahead for him, either.
Vigneault excelled in his first season as coach, after he replaced the fiery John Tortorella, and he will also be looking to win that elusive championship. The Rangers haven’t hoisted the Cup since their last finals experience in 1994. Vigneault took the Vancouver Canucks to the final step, too, only to fall to Boston in 2011.
“Each year you play, your drive gets bigger and bigger,” Stepan said. “This group has been close, and certainly that drive is going to be there for next year.”