You start the regular season with a Phoenix-Los Angeles-San Jose-Anaheim-St. Louis-Washington-New Jersey-Philadelphia road trip. You survive a seven-game series in the first round and a 3-1 deficit in the second round and create hope, genuine hope, with a convincing victory in the third round.
You arrive to the Stanley Cup Final and then you get hit by a truck.
This is where the New York Rangers find themselves and there’s no possible way to hide the disappointment. The players had any number of cliches available to them when they arrived at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday morning and eschewed them all.
What we saw instead were blank stares, glassy eyes and grim expressions. Man, it was bleak.
“It’s a tough day today,” said Brad Richards, the de facto captain. “I’m not going to lie to you, it’s pretty much impossible to be upbeat.”
This can be a cruel, tough, awful game. Pure joy turns to devastation on a hockey rink in the amount of time it takes a puck to hit a defenceman’s skate and ricochet into the top corner.
The one thing that separates the chase for the Stanley Cup from championships in other pro sports is the sheer level of attrition involved in winning it. Teams fall off one by one until eventually you are left with a survivor. The unbridled emotion you see on the ice whenever that beautiful trophy is handed out can largely be attributed to the length of the journey.
New York’s season began with an exhibition game on Sept. 16. It first played these very same Los Angeles Kings in Las Vegas on Sept. 27 — does anyone even remember that? — and now needs to beat them on June 11 to earn the right to continue playing.
There are so many twists and turns to be negotiated over nine months of hockey that you can understand exactly why the Rangers were turned inside-out after seemingly having their destiny sealed.
“The best and worst part of winning is till you’ve won it, you don’t really understand what that is,” explained Kings coach Darryl Sutter, who fell just short with the 2004 Calgary Flames. “Then when you lose, you’re pretty close to understanding it. Anybody that’s never been in either one of those positions, they’ll never understand it. Never.
“That’s why there’s teams that say they’re happy to make the playoffs because they don’t understand the big goal part of it.”
The Rangers have had their belief severely tested over the last week. They’ve held four two-goal leads and taken two games to overtime and seen pucks bounce in off their own players and surrendered a goal while Henrik Lundqvist was being leaned on by Dwight King.
Heck, they only allowed 15 shots against and still lost Monday’s game 3-0.
When Lundqvist took the podium about 14 hours later, he started talking about New York needing to earn its luck by making good decisions and working hard. Then he realized that’s exactly what they’ve already been doing.
“I don’t know,” said King Henrik.
It’s pretty weird being around a playoff series, especially one in the fourth round, where the team trailing 3-0 feels like it has been as good — if not better — than its opponent.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Rangers defenceman Marc Staal said when asked about Los Angeles. “I’m not going to start pumping their tires. We’ve been right there with them.”
The Kings have been there, done that.
They were ahead of the New Jersey Devils 3-0 in the 2012 Stanley Cup final and took their eyes off the prize. They missed two chances at closing things out before eventually getting the job done in Game 6. That experience came with some lessons.
“There were some issues that maybe got us sidetracked a little bit,” said forward Justin Williams. “The thought of winning a Cup, being one game away, family issues, ticket issues, all that stuff.”
Sutter says he likes to keep his players in an inner circle during the playoffs and the “circle got a little bit of infringement” two years ago.
Not this time. Not again.
All that stands in the way of Los Angeles becoming a small “d” dynasty now is 60 minutes of hockey. It’s the same margin that separates the Rangers from their painful demise. On this particular day between games, the conflicting emotions that come with those parallel realities were impossible to miss.
“There’s 28 teams that would love to be in our place right now,” said veteran Rangers winger Martin St. Louis, sounding like someone who was talking himself into it. “In a Stanley Cup final, down three (games) and still being alive. So we’re going to keep pushing.”
They will fight on because what other choice do they really have?
Heartbreak may already be setting in. The Rangers flew higher and farther than most imagined they would in 2013-14, but they’re facing the same fate as all but one of the others — disappointment at ultimately falling short.
“We’re down 3-0,” said coach Alain Vigneault. “We’re all lacking sleep. This is tough. I didn’t expect my players today to be cheery and upbeat. We’re in the Stanley Cup final and we’re down 3-0. You don’t get a lot of these opportunities.
“Excuse us if today we’re not real cheery, but tomorrow I can tell you we’re going to show up.”
Full credit to them if they manage to pull it off.