NEW YORK (AP) — After losing the Stanley Cup final to the Los Angeles Kings last season, the New York Rangers came into the season with a simple motto: “Change the finish.”
The goal was to take that next step and bring the Cup back to New York for the first time since 1994 when Mark Messier and company ended a 50-year drought.
The Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top team in the regular season, but the finish came a round short Friday night in a 2-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
It was the Rangers’ first loss in a Game 7 at the Garden and it ended a series in which they lost three of four at home, including being shut out in the final two contests here.
“I’m pretty upset,” said Rick Nash, who led the Rangers with 42 goals in the regular season. “In a career you don’t get too many opportunities to play on a team like this and get that opportunity to win a championship. It’s pretty frustrating right now.”
The Rangers have only themselves to blame After forcing a seventh game with a 7-3 victory Tuesday night, they generated almost nothing on offense, wasting two second-period power plays in a scoreless game.
Ben Bishop made 22 saves for the Lightning. Alex Killorn gave Tampa Bay the lead early in the third period and Ondrej Palat iced the game with a second goal with 8:43 to play.
“It stinks,” defenseman Dan Girardi said. “One period to win a game. … We’re shocked right now.”
The win sent the Lightning to the Cup final, where they will play Chicago or Anaheim, which will decide the Western Conference title Saturday night.
The Lightning, who won the Cup in 2004 in a seventh game over Calgary, allowed only four goals in as many games at the Garden.
“You have to give them credit,” Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said after seeing his streak of six Game 7 wins snapped. “I think, just like us, they can play two different games. They can play a tight game and they can go and score. It’s painful right now, it really is. You put your heart and soul into this entire year to try and get back and get an opportunity play in the final and we were 20 minutes away.”
New York had the NHL’s best record this season and was 15-3 in its last 18 elimination games. The most recent defeat was in the fifth game of the Cup finals last year at Los Angeles. But Bishop made sure there would be another loss for the Rangers, extending his shutout string at the Garden to 145 minutes, 43 seconds.
Bishop’s teammates stormed off the bench to mob him after his 22nd and last save of the night. The crowd chanted “Hen-rik! Hen-rik!” as both teams lined up to shake hands, and Lundqvist looked stunned as well as downhearted as he took part in the tradition. Lundqvist has won six Game 7s, tied for most by any goalie.
Killorn’s seventh goal of the postseason came 1:54 into the third on a backhander from the slot with traffic in front of Lundqvist, who didn’t appear to see the puck skitter in to the crease, then under him into the net.
Then it was left to Bishop to protect the slim margin. On one sequence with the lead still one goal, four Rangers were in front trying to locate a loose puck, but Bishop didn’t yield.
Palat finished it with his seventh of the playoffs, a wrist shot over Lundqvist’s glove off a nice feed from Tyler Johnson.
Not even pulling Lundqvist with 3:44 remaining helped the Rangers, who scored only four goals in as many games at home in the series.
The Lightning then collected the Prince of Wales Trophy for winning the East, and set their sights on the bigger hardware: the Stanley Cup.
The finals will begin Wednesday night.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said after the loss that captain Ryan McDonagh played with a broken foot. McDonagh sat out the first 12:41, but played a regular shift the rest of the way.
Each goalie made some superb saves in the second period, Bishop with his pad on a slap shot by Derick Brassard — he of the hat trick and two assists in Game 6 — and Lundqvist on Nikita Kucherov’s wrist shot, then a brilliant arm stop on Jason Garrison’s wrister.
That save prompted chants of “Hen-rik! Hen-rik!” from the crowd, and again when he stuck out his right leg to thwart a wide-open Tyler Johnson in front, his best save all night. The Lightning were looking very comfortable in a road Game 7 at that point.
Then it was on to the third period, nervous time for everyone. And a prosperous time for the Lightning, who have beaten Detroit in seven games, Montreal in six and the Rangers in seven this spring.
Notes: New York last won the title in 1994. … Because of McDonagh’s injury, the Rangers suited up seven defenseman, with Matt Hunwick making his series debut. … The Lightning went 5-1 at the Garden this season, counting two wins in the regular season. …The Lightning were 2-0 against the Ducks this season, 1-0-1 against the Blackhawks.
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