PHILADELPHIA -- The New York Rangers' three-week surge into playoff contention seemed miraculous.
Turns out, it was just a mirage.
Sure, the Blueshirts can talk all they want about how close they came to erasing six months of inconsistent hockey with a three-week surge back into playoff contention. The bottom line is that the run fell short, concluding with Sunday's 2-1 shootout loss in a win-or-go home game against the Flyers in Philadelphia. The loss left them at 87 points, one shy of Philly and Montreal.
It was the first time two teams went head-to-head in a shootout on the last day of the season with a playoff spot on the line. It spelled nothing but heartbreak for the Rangers, who are out of the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04.
"We played well over the last 10 games and gave ourselves a chance, but it should never have come to this," a somber Brandon Dubinsky said in the Rangers' locker room after the loss. "The way we started the year [was good]; the start and the finish. What really hurt us was everything that happened in between. It's tough to put it down to one goal and a shootout. We had our opportunities all year, and we just couldn't get it done."
"We played some good hockey," Chris Drury said. "But the inconsistency throughout the year put us in this spot."
It's tough to blame Henrik Lundqvist, who was masterful in regulation and overtime on Sunday and carried the Rangers during the 7-1-1 stretch that got them to the do-or-die game against the Flyers.
"We did what we could the past few weeks to get back in the race," said Lundqvist, who finished with 46 saves. "They were better than us tonight. It's tough to win two games against Philly when the fourth line is your best line. It's tough."
On Sunday, Lundqvist completely frustrated the Flyers for two periods, stopping Philly's first 37 shots. But Flyers defenseman Matt Carle found the back of the net on a rebound feed from Jeff Carter at 6:54 of the third period. The power-play goal tied the score at 1-1.
And surprisingly, Lunqvist was outplayed by career backup and Flyers third-stringer Brian Boucher in the shootout. Danny Briere scored in the first round and P.A. Parenteau evened it with a goal in the second. But Claude Giroux snapped a wrist shot past Lundqvist's pads in the third round and Boucher stopped Olli Jokinen to punch the Flyers into the playoffs. Philadelphia earned the seventh seed in the playoffs and moves on to face the second-seeded New Jersey Devils in the first round.
But what about the Rangers?
Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan wore a look of disgust as he sauntered out of the bowels of the Wachovia Center after the game. History has shown that when Dolan is angry, the heads of his Garden employees tend to roll.
Is Glen Sather, who has brought a consistently underachieving product to the ice during his nine-year tenure as president and general manager, on the hot seat? What about coach John Tortorella? His late-season adjustments to the lineup were effective, but did they come a few weeks too late to ensure job security for the fiery coach? What about his decision not to use leading scorer Marian Gaborik (86 points) in the shootout?
Tortorella, who reportedly signed a multiyear deal when he was hired on Feb. 24, 2009, bristled when someone asked about Gaborik after the game. He wouldn't even broach that topic. Instead, he wanted to talk about how hard his team had fought on Sunday, how they battled back from seven points down with 10 games to go to make Sunday matter.
"It's a tough loss, the way the guys have fought here for the last little while, fought right to the bitter end," the coach said.
Sorry, Coach, but the mirage of what could've been a miracle run to the playoffs doesn't mask the reality of a lost season.
Ian Begley is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.