NEWARK, N.J. - The New York Rangers were at their best for two straight games after falling into dangerously deep holes against the New Jersey Devils.
New York wiped out a three-goal deficit built in the first period of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals to tie it, and then erased a two-goal quandary in Game 6.
In neither case could the top-seeded Rangers ever get in front, and now they are left wondering why their season ended much sooner than they hoped or expected.
The Rangers were beaten 3-2 on Friday night when Adam Henrique scored 1:03 into overtime to end Game 6 and New York's visions of a second Stanley Cup title since 1940.
While the Devils move on to face the Western Conference champion Los Angeles Kings, the Rangers will be preparing for the summer. New York hasn't won the Cup since 1994, a special run that including a stirring seven-game conference finals victory over the Devils.
There were no guarantees or hat tricks this time from captain Mark Messier or anyone else. No timely goal to complete the last two comebacks, either.
Having to dig out of such early holes took a lot out of the Rangers, perhaps more than enough to derail their chances to come all the way back and leave the ice with wins.
"For sure," forward Brandon Prust said. "We always wanted to come out and get a good start, and we didn't do that."
No team has won the Stanley Cup after being pushed to seven games in the first two rounds, as the Rangers were, and New York would've needed to outlast the Devils in seven, too, just to get to the finals. New Jersey took out Florida in seven games in the first round before steamrolling Philadelphia in five in the second.
However, Rangers coach John Tortorella didn't use his club's extended play as an excuse for what must feel like an early exit from the playoffs.
"No. I disagree with you guys on that. That has nothing to do with it," Tortorella said. "I thought the past couple of games, the second and third periods, we were the better team.
"It has nothing to do with being tired. This is part of learning to play. I couldn't be happier how we responded after, again, a pretty shaky first period. I thought we were in a good spot going into that overtime."
The Rangers had a good chance to end it right at the beginning of the extra session, but were thwarted. The Devils came down the other end, and Henrique netted the winner near the right post after a wild scrum in front of goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
In Game 5, the Rangers tied the game 3-3 early in the third period, only to be beaten in the closing minutes of regulation on a goal by fourth-liner Ryan Carter. Carter struck again in Game 6, scoring the first of New Jersey's two goals in the first period when the Devils built their latest early lead.
Ruslan Fedotenko and captain Ryan Callahan scored 3:54 apart in the second period to tie it at 2. The inability to net the third goal, even while carrying play in the third, proved costly.
"We talked about changing nothing," defenceman Marc Staal said of the Rangers' mindset going into overtime. "Keep going at them, and I thought we did that. We had a great first shift and we almost scored. Then they find the puck in the scrum and put it in.
"The way we battled, the character of the guys in this room is next to none. All playoffs long we were resilient, and it makes it that much harder when you lose a game like this."
The Rangers now know just how the Philadelphia Flyers feel. After keeping the Devils down in the regular-season race in the Atlantic Division, the Rangers ran into the same buzz saw as the Flyers and got run out of the playoffs by their area rival.
New York won the series opener at Madison Square Garden, but then dropped four of five ??? including three in a row ??? to have their once rolling season come crashing down.
The spot in the Stanley Cup finals they were focused on securing now belongs to the Devils, who advanced out of the No. 6 seed.
The thought of not having a practice to attend on Saturday was already hitting the Rangers hard in a quiet, disappointed dressing room just moments after the last loss.
"I don't think we were really prepared for that feeling," Prust said. "It's definitely a weird feeling."