Rangers run out of gas, comebacks in Game 6 of East Final

TAMPA – Chris Kreider sat up in his chair at the postgame press conference, trying with everything he had left to stay composed as his eyes appeared to well up. To the New York Rangers forward’s right was teammate Mika Zibanejad leaning forward towards the microphone, his voice quiet, his energy completely gone.

“I feel like denying this right now,” Zibanejad said. “I do not know. I do not honestly have much to say. Just, empty. Do not want it to be over.”

It’s over for the Rangers.

The team that built its season and run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs on its resiliency, on its ability to come back, to beat the odds, ran out of gas against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.

The Rangers’ season and Stanley Cup dreams ended Saturday with a 2-1 loss in Game 6 at Amalie Arena. It ended with their first four-game losing streak of the season.

“Empty,” Kreider said of his emotions. “Obviously, very sad.”

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In time, the Rangers will have perspective on what they accomplished.

They will realize the significance of reaching the Eastern Conference Final, of being two wins away from the Stanley Cup Final. They will understand that after a few years of rebuilding they arrived in a big way this season.

They were legitimate contenders. Barring a catastrophe, they will be for many more seasons.

But now is not that time. Perspective does not come to you 20 minutes after your season ends and your dreams are dashed.

“Right now, it’s not easy,” defenseman Jacob Trouba said. “Think about it and reflect, but right now, not a good feeling.”

The Rangers played 20 games in 40 days in the playoffs. They needed seven games to eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round and seven more to get by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.

They scored nine goals in winning the first two games against the Lightning. They even had a 2-0 lead in Game 3.

But the well dried up.

New York scored one goal in each of the last three games, one at even strength.

Coach Gerard Gallant said fatigue from a long playoff run, from playing every other day, was a factor.

“There’s no doubt it showed up,” he said. “No real breaks. I would have loved to have gotten by tonight and had two days off. That would have been the first time. That would have been awesome. But it’s the way it goes.”

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Game 7 would have been Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.

The Rangers needed to give more than they had left in Game 6 to make it happen.

Tampa Bay controlled the game from start to finish, minus a quick blip when Frank Vatrano scored a power-play goal for New York to tie it 1-1 at 13:07 of the third period.

Steven Stamkos scored 21 seconds later to give the Lightning the 2-1 lead.

The Rangers mustered one more shot on goal in the final 6:32, an Artemi Panarin wrist shot from inside the left point that Vasilevskiy sent into the corner with his blocker.

“They’re a big, big defensive team,” Gallant said. “They make it tough on you. They box you out really well. And they do a good job. Our focus was trying to battle to get there and it’s fatigue, there’s no doubt in my mind.”

Zibanejad wouldn’t go there.

“There was no fatigue,” the forward said. “I mean, these are the games that we all want to play. I feel like we got enough rest between the games. It had nothing to do with fatigue.”

Then it had everything to do with the Lightning and how they defended the Rangers, making them look tired because they could not get to the front of the net or generate anything off the rush.

Zibanejad had no points in the last three games after he had 13 (seven goals, six assists) in an eight-game point streak.

It was the same for defenseman Adam Fox: no points in the last three games after he had 13 (two goals, 11 assists) in an eight-game point streak.

Kreider had no points in the last two games. He did not have a shot on goal in Game 6.

Filip Chytil did not have a point in the last four games; the forward had six (five goals, one assist) in the previous four.

Ryan Strome could not play in Game 4 because of a lower-body injury. The forward labored through two periods Saturday before he finally had to shut it down because of the same injury.

“Obviously, guys got tired,” Trouba said. “It’s a lot of hockey in a short amount of time. It’s hard, physical hockey too. A lot of guys giving some courageous efforts playing with injuries and putting it on the line.”

The Rangers felt they could do it one more time, that they could force Game 7 with one more show of their resiliency.

They did it in the regular season with 27 comeback wins. They did it in the first round, down 3-1 against the Penguins before coming back to win. They did it in the second round, coming back from down 3-2 against the Hurricanes.

“Didn’t do it this round,” Kreider said.

The tank was empty.

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