Rangers continue frustrating legacy: Good, sometimes great, but still not enough

SUNRISE, Fla. — The Rangers were hoping this spring would play out like 1994. There were plenty of similarities, from a Presidents’ Trophy to a first-round sweep to a strong second-round win.

But in the end, this one ended like 2022, not 1994: On the ice in Florida, a 2-1 loss in Game 6 in an Eastern Conference final the Rangers led after three games. We’re going beyond 30 years now since the franchise’s last Stanley Cup. It feels like a few lifetimes ago.

Within the last 13 years, the Rangers have established themselves as one of the very good teams in the league, sometimes a great team. Two Presidents’ Trophies. Five trips to the Eastern Conference finals.

But nothing much beyond that. There was the one Final trip a decade ago, but the good seasons have all ended at the same point: Beaten by a team that pulled out wins at the right time, came up with timely goals and stymied the Rangers at the key moments.

It’s hard to be unhappy as a fan of this franchise in these last 13 years. To have gone from the success and near misses from 2012-2017 straight into a deliberate bottoming out and a return right to the top of the East standings the last three years means that Chris Drury deserves huge credit. So do his key players. Artemi Panarin is setting regular-season scoring records with his consistency. Chris Kreider has matured from mercurial to one of the most reliable goal scorers in the league. Adam Fox will be in the Norris Trophy conversation for a long time.

And Igor Shesterkin — well, the Henrik Lundqvist comparisons are probably a bit premature, but who else can you compare him to? Shesterkin has been the Rangers’ No. 1 for four years and he’s helped them to the conference final twice; Lundqvist didn’t make a conference final until his seventh season as the Rangers starter, albeit behind a team not nearly as strong as this one.

If there’s one negative in Lundqvist’s remarkable legacy, it’s obviously that he never won a Stanley Cup. He was superb in that 2014 Final, outdueled by Jonathan Quick and undone by three overtime losses. Shesterkin was the best player on either team in this series against the Panthers, cementing the need for the Rangers to keep Shesterkin in the fold for a long time.

But … it still wasn’t good enough. The 2022 Rangers were more of upstarts, arriving to the ball a bit early but still showing that trademark Ranger tenacity in rallying to eliminate the Penguins and Hurricanes in the first two rounds before taking a 2-0 series lead on the two-time defending champion Lightning. There was also a 2-0 lead in Game 3, a so-close-you-could-taste-it feel to that conference final before the Lightning dug into its bag of playoff tricks to rally, win Game 3 and reel off the next three games to stun the Rangers.

They were close then, fully emerged from the doldrums of the previous four years — and they were a bit depressing, even though it was all well planned and produced some incredible results in terms of prospects and building blocks — and ready again to contend. To be the Rangers, a team important to the league and to the city when they’re good.

Good again. Sometimes great. Not quite good enough in 2022, but there was time. And, with the addition of Peter Laviolette behind the bench and a couple of key free agents here and there the last couple years — the Vincent Trocheck signing in the summer of 2023 stands as a master stroke for Drury, as does adding Quick as Shesterkin’s backup when most thought that Quick was done — this season felt special.

The 18-3-1 start, buoyed by Quick playing like the guy that broke Ranger hearts in 2014. Alexis Lafrenière putting his game together after three dispiriting seasons. Panarin challenging Jaromir Jagr’s franchise points record. Kreider becoming just the third player in franchise history to crack the 300-goal barrier. Shesterkin turning back into the 2021-22 version of himself over the final two months. A wire-to-wire win in the Metro Division and the East. A second Presidents’ Trophy in 10 years.

“First place in the league all year — obviously, we thought we could win the whole thing,” Fox said. “Whenever you’ve got that guy (Shesterkin) in net, you always feel you have a chance. The goal from training camp was to win a Cup. We came up short of that.”

Good. Sometimes great. Still not good enough. It’s an old song. In 2012, the heart-and-soul troops under John Tortorella rode Lundqvist through the Senators and Capitals before stumbling against a Devils team that wasn’t better, necessarily, but still had some of the old Devils championship flair with Marty Brodeur in net.

Two years later, under Alain Vigneault, there was a better run: Wins over the Flyers and Penguins, the latter from 3-1 down, then a win over the Canadiens to get back to a final for the first time since ’94. The Kings series was tough to swallow but the Rangers were there. They’d be back.

The next season: Presidents’ Trophy. A well-oiled machine. Dominant first-round over Pittsburgh, another 3-1 rally to beat the Caps, then a difficult seven-game loss to the Lightning, who were still a few years away from being the league’s elite. It felt like a bit of a failure.

After Saturday, the feelings were a bit the same. This Rangers team exudes confidence, earned over a strong season of comeback wins and resilience. They had some of the best players. They had the best goalie.

And still, here we are. Asking why it didn’t happen, why another Florida team got to stand around the Prince of Wales Trophy while the Rangers skated off, staring into the distance.

“Everyone expected to go farther,” Panarin said. “I don’t feel like we are lost, no chance. One goal can change everything.”

But the Rangers didn’t get that goal. They didn’t get that win. They aren’t moving on to a Final they felt they’d earned.

It’s hard to be completely down on this team. The Rangers reached some real heights, took a step back and then jumped back up to the stage and the spotlight. It’s impressive and the Rangers deserve praise for being one of the few teams to tear it down without having won a Cup to try and create a new championship window within just a few years. There are any number of teams — the Sabres, Senators and Canucks, to name three — who have tried everything since making conference finals and finals 15 and 20 years ago without success.

And yet.

The Rangers are good. Sometimes great. But it still isn’t enough. As Mika Zibanejad put it in the somber locker room on Saturday:

“Right now, it stings.”

(Photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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