By PAT PICKENS
If my parents taught me anything it's that if you play with fire, sooner or later, you're going to get burned.
The New York Rangers played with fire last season and rebounded to reach the Stanley Cup finals. They toed the line again in their second-round series against the Washington Capitals, falling behind 3-1 before rallying for a seven-game series win.
But in the Eastern Conference finals, the Blueshirts got burned.
The younger, faster and undaunted Tampa Bay Lightning walked into Madison Square Garden and dealt the Rangers their first Game 7 loss there ever. They did it behind Ben Bishop's 22-save shutout in a 2-0 win -- the hulking netminder's second such performance of these playoffs.
And while the Lightning deserve full marks for winning five of six games at the Garden this season, including the last three, the Rangers left midtown Manhattan Friday night with a familiar dejected feeling.
The Blueshirts' motto this postseason was "change the ending" -- an effort they tried to lean on to get back to the Stanley Cup finals, but this time come out victorious for the first time since 1994.
Injuries ravaged the Rangers all season, but they resiliently rose to the top of the NHL, winning their first Presidents' Trophy in 21 years. For once, the vibe around the Rangers felt different -- they were the hunted but relished that role with a vibrant and speedy team in front of the always-reliable Henrik Lundqvist.
After leaning too heavily on Lundqvist in past seasons, the netminder even got a refresher when a vascular injury sidelined him midseason. He deemed the injury a blessing in disguise when the Blueshirts didn't miss a beat with Cam Talbot in net, and with Lundqvist healthy for the playoffs, New York appeared poised for a run at the Stanley Cup.
No matter how much head coach Alain Vigneault posits that each team is different -- and as resiliently this team actually performed -- in the end, these were the same old Rangers. They played tense and tight on home ice in Game 7 after the first 10 minutes and allowed Tampa Bay to settle into a defensive structure.
"For some reason it was tough for us when they play that tight of a game," Lundqvist said. "It was really tough for us to create big chances."
At the end of the day, injuries became the Rangers' undoing, as Mats Zuccarello's concussion, Ryan McDonagh's broken foot and Marc Staal's rumored broken ankle were too much for them to overcome against the fast and electric Lightning. Maybe at the end of the day that will be enough to allow the Rangers and their legion of fans to sleep soundly at night knowing: that after nine months, the injury bug finally became too much for the resilient team to overcome.
But with this being the fourth straight Rangers season to end after Memorial Day, and with zero Cups and only one berth in the Cup finals to show for it, you wonder just how much they'll have in the tank in the years ahead. And by playing seven-game series in four consecutive seasons -- seven of their last 13 series have gone the distance -- it gets even harder to ramp up the energy in the years ahead. Just ask the Kings.
The Blueshirts' window probably runs through next season, but they clearly made a mistake not re-signing Anton Stralman -- who wanted to remain in New York and is headed to his second straight Stanley Cup finals as a member of the Lightning. The Rangers lack a first-round draft pick until 2017 and parted with their top prospect Anthony Duclair to acquire Keith Yandle at this trade deadline.
Lundqvist isn't getting any younger either, as he'll suddenly be 34 next March, and in the salary-cap age, reaching the conference finals three straight years -- and four of five -- is difficult.
"I'm pretty upset," Rangers forward Rick Nash said. "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."
This may have felt like "the year" for Rangers fans everywhere. Instead, it's another charring for a base that's been burned way too often.
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