NEW YORK — When the New York Rangers’ longer-than-expected season ended in a double overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup finals, the Eastern Conference champions weren’t ready to accept any accolades.
Sure they played well in outlasting Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs and then showed an impressive bounce-back ability in rallying to win three straight elimination games against Pittsburgh.
The Rangers then took out Montreal, after the Canadiens knocked out the defending conference champion Boston Bruins, and advanced to the Cup finals for the first time since they won the title 20 years ago.
But that reflection isn’t for now. Not after a third overtime loss in Los Angeles sent the Rangers home for the summer on Friday night and made the Kings the champions for the second time in three seasons.
"Any loss in the Stanley Cup finals is going to be a real tough loss," coach Alain Vigneault said following his first season behind the Rangers bench. "Everybody laid it out there. I'm very proud of our group, very proud of their effort.
"We'll take a couple days here to reflect on what happened and we'll go from there."
The Rangers went 45-31-6 during the regular season and finished second in the Metropolitan Division -- 13 points behind Pittsburgh and two ahead of Philadelphia.
It was the seventh time they won at least 45 games -- including two of the past three seasons. Their 25 road victories broke the franchise record and tied for the second most in the NHL this season. That was achieved despite a 3-6 season-opening road trip necessitated by renovations at Madison Square Garden.
"It's been a long year," said Henrik Lundqvist, who made 48 saves in the loss that knocked out the Rangers in Game 5. "It's been a challenging year, but a fun year. We came up short against a really good team.
"I have never been so tired."
Lundqvist kept the Rangers in the finals as long as they lasted with his stellar play. New York led in all but one of the five games, and the difference was three overtime losses in Los Angeles, including two in double overtime.
The Rangers and Kings were separated by one goal for 85 per cent of the series. New York's only win was a 2-1 nail-biter at home in Game 4. But the Rangers couldn't force another game back in the Garden.
"This is a fresh wound right now. I am proud of every guy here," said forward Martin St. Louis, who scored a team-high eight playoff goals after being acquired at the trade deadline. "We hit a few posts. It's a game of inches.
"It's tough to go all the way to the end and not win. There is no doubt about it."
The Rangers have built a strong nucleus and have gotten as far as the conference finals twice in three years, but big decisions lie ahead in what will be a shorter than usual off-season.
The first will be whether or not to use their second and final amnesty buyout on forward Brad Richards, who has six years and big money left on his deal but has seen his play decline for two straight playoff seasons. He wasn't benched this year in the post-season as he was in 2013 by former coach John Tortorella, but he was demoted to the fourth line in the final two games against the Kings.
If he is bought out, the Rangers will save key dollars on the salary cap going forward. Richards stepped into the role of de facto captain after Ryan Callahan was traded away in the St. Louis deal due to what he was looking for in a deal as he approached unrestricted free agency.
The Rangers finished the season without a captain, instead using three alternates.
"There will be a time this summer when you'll think back to what an amazing run it was," Richards said. "It has to be amazing to get this far. Things have to come together. No one will ever know, except for us, how fun it was and how we came together.
"You lose three games in overtime in the finals, it's hard to explain."
New York has several key unrestricted free agents such as forwards Brian Boyle, Derick Brassard, Benoit Pouliot, Dominic Moore, and Daniel Carcillo. Defenceman Anton Stralman can also hit the market on July 1. Forwards Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello and defenceman John Moore are among the restricted free agents.
While Rick Nash had a disappointing three goals and seven assists in the playoffs, the Rangers' offence was led by stellar defenceman Ryan McDonagh, who posted 17 points -- including 13 assists.