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NEW YORK – Henrik Lundqvist's disappointment began before the final buzzer sounded on the New York Rangers' season in Boston.
An empty-net goal in the closing seconds, while Lundqvist watched from the bench, turned a one-goal deficit into a Game 5, season-ending loss in the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Bruins. Lundqvist slammed his stick on his way back to the net, knowing another chance at the Stanley Cup was gone.
He and the Rangers got one step further a year ago before they fell in the conference finals to New Jersey. Now with a summer full of questions ahead, there is no assurance New York will be even as good next season.
"Last year, a lot of things went our way, and we had a lot of confidence," the 31-year-old Lundqvist said. "This year, we had to work through a lot of things to get going, and it came down to the last few games. It was a different season, a different approach. It was just a different feeling the way that this season went.
"We had to work a little harder to get the results. I think it's really important that we have a pretty young team, and that we learn from this."
Lundqvist, last season's Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's top goalie, is again a finalist for the award. He was at the top of his game for much of the series with the Bruins and was the reason the Rangers were down by only one goal for much of the second half of their final loss.
"The hardest feeling is just realizing it's over," Lundqvist said. "The next couple of days you're going to analyze things and try to figure out what went wrong, and what you can do better, and try to learn from it."
New York got a bit of life with an overtime home win in Game 4, and played better in Game 5, but falling into a 3-0 series hole against the Bruins proved too much to overcome. The Rangers dug out of an 0-2 deficit in the first round against Washington and staved off elimination in Games 6 and 7 when Lundqvist posted back-to-back shutouts.
Yet, he could only do so much. His performance couldn't get the Rangers back to the third round after the lockout-shortened, 48-game regular season.
"I don't compare to last year," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "Everybody tries to, with the expectations, because you go to the conference finals, and then everybody thinks your next step is the Stanley Cup finals.
"You may not like it, you may think it's an excuse, but we're a different team. We still are one of the top eight teams playing at this time. We've gotten to play 30 playoff games in the past two years. Some teams would lick their chops to do that. I know you're always looking for the end goal, and getting to the finals, you get an opportunity. We didn't."
A lack of consistent offense hurt New York throughout its two rounds, and it ultimately led to elimination. The Rangers scored two goals or fewer in eight of their 12 playoff games this year and were 5-7 in the postseason.
That was hardly expected when they pulled off a major offseason deal to pry star power forward Rick Nash away from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Rangers scored 10 goals against the Bruins. Boston got 11 just from their fourth line and defensemen — including four from rookie defenseman Torey Krug, who had played in one NHL game before this series.
"It's heartbreaking," Nash said. "We have a good team, good season, and we just couldn't get the job done."
New York and Columbus pulled off another big deal at the trade deadline this season, with the Rangers acquiring forwards Derick Brassard and Derek Dorsett and defenseman John Moore, but those pieces were brought in for Marian Gaborik — a 41-goal scorer last season.
Nash recorded only one goal and four assists in this year's playoffs, and even though Brassard led the club with 12 postseason points, the big scoring threat of Gaborik was missed.
"Some of the responsibility falls on me," Tortorella said. "It's a big part of my job to get your top players to play consistently, and I couldn't do that. We tried, and so I need to take some responsibility and try to get them in those spots to help us here. I thought that hurt us a little bit."
While Tortorella didn't want to use injuries as an excuse, New York was severely hampered by the loss of key defenseman Marc Staal (eye), who played in only one postseason game, and rugged forward Ryane Clowe, who was limited to two.
Tortorella compared Staal's importance to the Rangers to that of hulking defenseman Zdeno Chara's to Boston, and called Clowe New York's version of Bruins hard-hitter Milan Lucic.
"Those are two pretty big players for us," Tortorella said. "You need to try to find a way. All teams go through it. It hurt our depth. It put people in situations that, right now, I don't think they're ready to handle."
One player with a vast amount of playoff experience and success is former star forward Brad Richards, whose play slipped so much that Tortorella was forced to scratch him from the lineup for the final two games.
The 33-year-old Richards, an alternate captain who has seven years left on the nine-year, $60 million deal he signed in July 2011, managed only one goal and no assists in 10 playoff games with a minus-3 rating.
Richards was dropped to the fourth line before being benched. Now he might be on his way. The Rangers could choose to buy out the rest of Richards' lucrative deal. A buyout would cost two-thirds of the remaining amount — paid evenly over twice its remaining length — and would count against the players' overall share in revenues, but not the individual team's salary cap. A buyout for Richards would cost the Rangers $24 million over 14 years.
The salary cap will drop from this season's $70.2 million to $64.3 million next season. Cutting Richards' $6.67 million charge could give the Rangers much needed flexibility.
Clowe, also acquired at the trade deadline, will be an unrestricted free agent, and young forwards Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin, Mats Zuccarello, along with key defensemen Moore and Ryan McDonagh are heading into restricted free agency.
Lundqvist, captain Ryan Callahan, and Brassard are among those who have one-year remaining before they can become unrestricted free agents.