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New York Rangers left to ponder what could've been in NHL playoffs

"With the stride we were hitting coming into the playoffs, my feeling was we really had a strong chance," said 38-year-old forward Brendan Shanahan. "I don't even know if we all knew how good we were."

The Rangers season officially ended Sunday at home with a 5-4 loss to the Buffalo Sabres in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinal. In reality, it came to a crashing halt two nights earlier when Chris Drury scored the tying goal for Buffalo with 7.7 seconds left in regulation. The Sabres then won in overtime.

The Rangers gave their fans a victory salute at centre ice before heading out of Madison Square Garden for the final time. They were showered with cheers and rallying chants. They left with a lot of regret, and that might be the biggest accomplishment.

Making the playoffs isn't good enough anymore. New York is no longer a country-club destination for expensive players eyeing one last paycheque.

"We've turned the corner as a franchise," said Shanahan, a three-time Stanley Cup champion who left perennial contender Detroit last summer. "There's a certain amount of commitment and expectation level that I don't think was here in a while."

After seven straight postseason absences, the Rangers returned to the playoffs last year and were swept in the first round by New Jersey in Tom Renney's first full season as coach. At the all-star break in February, a return to the playoffs seemed a longshot.

After an 18-17-4 start capped by a seven-game losing streak in December, the Rangers rode a 17-5-5 surge - following the arrival of Sean Avery from Los Angeles - to the sixth seed in East.

The Rangers then swept the Atlanta Thrashers for their first trip to the second round since 1997. Buffalo, the NHL's top team, was next. The Rangers spoke with the bluster of a Stanley Cup contender.

"You don't know how close you are until you aren't in it anymore," Renney said. "We came very close."

The Rangers lost the opening two games, lamenting the second one. They had the lead in the third period before two mistakes led to two Sabres goals that produced a one-goal loss.

Two wins on home ice, where the Rangers won nine straight and 12 of 13 before Sunday's defeat, gave New York hope heading back to Buffalo. That is until the worst loss of all.

"I was glad that we were fighting until the end," Shanahan said. "I've been in those situations before where, for whatever reasons, when you think the effort should be there, it's not.

"I think that we could have and maybe should have won the series. And that will kind of give you some bad dreams for the next couple of weeks."

Added Jaromir Jagr: "I think with the players we had here, we could have gone a little farther. It's kind of sad to go home."

Jagr took on the captaincy this season, after declining a year earlier, and did well in his understated way to lead the team. He had help from Shanahan, an alternate captain who finds comfort in being more vocal in the locker room.

Jagr will be back, having one season plus a team option left on his deal. Shanahan's return is still a work in progress. He said he enjoyed his year in New York but needs time to decide if he will return for a 20th NHL season.

A concussion in February cost him a month and raised questions if it was wise to continue his certain Hall of Fame career. He earned US$4 million this season and might have to take less money to stay.

"I'll talk it over with my family, not just the option where, but if," said Shanahan, who along with Jagr reached the 600-goal mark this season. "I had a fantastic time this year and if I play again next year, I'd love to be a part of it.

"The pieces are there if they want to make it happen."

New York's other major unrestricted free agent is Michael Nylander, who had career highs with 26 goals, 57 assists and 83 points while serving as the main playmaker on Jagr's line. He led New York with six goals and 13 points in the playoffs.

Backup goalie Kevin Weekes, defenceman Karel Rachunek and checking forward Jed Ortmeyer can become free agents July 1. Drury and fellow centre Scott Gomez of New Jersey will surely be targeted by the Rangers on the open market.

"It looked like we were missing something," Jagr said. "If we were in a baseball game, we are missing the closer.

"We didn't have a Mariano Rivera."


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