NEWARK, N.J. -- As his teammates' name tags were being pulled down from their lockers, and their equipment bags were being loaded onto carts for the summer, Henrik Lundqvist could find no solace in this parting gift:
Trying to blame someone for the overtime goal that sent the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup finals and sent the New York Rangers home would be like trying to blame someone for a 20-car pileup on a rain-soaked highway wrapped in a London fog.
"It's not a good feeling," Lundqvist said, "when you just feel all the guys on top of you, behind you, in front of you. It's just a big scramble and nobody knows where the puck is. You just hope for a whistle and a faceoff."
Instead Lundqvist heard the sickening sound of a horn and an explosion of Game 6 noise he will never, ever forget. The puck had slipped through a tangle of humanity in front of his net, and there was Adam Henrique to put it away and deny the Rangers' goalie his first trip to the finals, where 40-year-old Martin Brodeur will face the Los Angeles Kings in his bid to win a fourth crown.
Brodeur's time was supposed to be going, going, gone. This was supposed to be Lundqvist's time, his season to win it all and notarize his standing as the best goalie in the game.
"I guess it wasn't our year," he said in a corner of the losers' locker room.
"It is shocking any time it ends like that. ... When it's over, it's just such an empty feeling."
Sixty-three lousy seconds. That's how long it took the Devils to terminate the Rangers in overtime, and to liberate Brodeur from one of the worst nights of his distinguished professional life. Eighteen years ago to the day, Mark Messier scored a third-period hat trick against the rookie Brodeur to honor his Game 6 guarantee, and to set up the epic "Matteau! ... Matteau! ... Matteau!" finish to Game 7.
Brodeur had been haunted by the defeat, and by the fact he had never beaten the Rangers on the way to the Cup. Now Lundqvist is the one in need of a ghostbuster. He was the best player on the best team in the Eastern Conference, and he just lost to the sixth seed in his own backyard.
"It's going to take a while to get over this," he said.
A lot longer than he could possibly know.
"All the work you put in over the last couple of months," Lundqvist said, "even the last eight months to get here. ... It hurts."
The Rangers had it all set up for a Game 7 at the Garden, too, following the 1994 script. The Devils took a 2-0 lead (just like in '94) before a Russian-born Ranger, Ruslan Fedotenko, cut the lead in half (Russian Alex Kovalev made it 2-1 in '94). When the Rangers' captain, Ryan Callahan, tied the score, nobody needed to be reminded that the Rangers' captain, Mark Messier, did the same way back when.
Only Callahan wasn't about to add two more goals in Messier form. In fact, the Rangers were done scoring for the night, and for the season.
"I thought it was going to end quick in overtime," John Tortorella said. "I thought it was going to be us."
He thought wrong, dead wrong. The puck ended up in front of the Rangers' net, with Ryan McDonagh and Brad Richards among the bodies flailing about as Ilya Kovalchuk hacked away at the puck. Somehow, the puck slid through the crease and found Henrique, who likened this late-night development to Christmas morn.
Richards was in the net, and Lundqvist was down on his hands and knees. Tortorella had predicted both men would play their very best in Game 6, and the coach went an un-Messier-like 0-for-2 on his pledges at the worst possible time.
"I thought we were the better team," Tortorella said.
The Rangers were the more fatigued team, even if their coach refused to admit it. And for all the great work he did in winning the conference's top seed and two Game 7s, Tortorella made a tactical error in this series that might've taken a psychological toll on his players.
He kept talking about the long-term benefits of this grueling postseason experience, kept saying this would pay off with future teams, with the building of his program. Tortorella was unwittingly giving his players an out, and ignoring the possibility that this might be the best championship shot his Rangers ever get.
The game is hopelessly fickle. Natural progressions in sports -- lose in the conference finals one year, reach the finals the next, win the Cup the next -- can be foiled by injuries, bad bounces, almost anything. That's why Lundqvist looked and sounded like a man who had lost everything.
"So many things that happened during the year and even in the playoffs felt like this was something special," he said. "And as a player you just hope it's a sign of something good that's coming, something exciting.
"Unfortunately, a lot of times in overtime this is what happens. Just a big scramble, a weird bounce. I just hoped it would be us."
Brodeur was the one who made overtime a necessity by making two great third-period stops, one on Richards while lying on his side, the other a poke check to break up an Artem Anisimov rush. Brodeur made 33 saves to Lundqvist's 26, and when it was over the winning goalie did little to disabuse anyone of the notion that he needed this one to even the '94 score.
"I think winning against them on the big stage," Brodeur said, "not just for me, but I think for the fans of New Jersey, the people that are supporting us and always taking a second seat to these guys for whatever reason, now they're going to be pretty happy going to work and going to school and doing all their things that they do."
In the end, none of the three Devils goals would necessarily qualify as Lundqvist's fault. But then again, it's always the goalie's fault. It's always the best player's fault, even when he doesn't have championship-level teammates at his side. Lundqvist can ask Patrick Ewing a thing or three about that.
Truth is, this series changed when Bryce Salvador's soft wrist shot through traffic beat the Rangers goalie in Game 4, stripping him of his aura of invincibility. So when he was done losing his third straight game to Jersey, Lundqvist said, "It's just such a terrible feeling."
Only here's the hardest part, a truth Brodeur lived with for 18 years:
That feeling doesn't get any better with time.