Let's not forget how far Rangers have come this season

Updated: May 2, 2006, 12:33 AM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

NEW YORK -- When the pain of this four-game series loss to the Devils subsides (and it might take awhile), the Rangers will look back on their surprising 2005-06 season as an end and a beginning.

The season marked the end of an almost unthinkable nine-year playoff drought.

Henrik Lundqvist
AP Photo/Bill KostrounRangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was beaten Saturday, but he was one of the keys to New York's turnaround season.

And, with a rejuvenated Jaromir Jagr, a top young stopper in Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist and a strong coaching staff led by Tom Renney, there's every reason to believe this renaissance season will be the beginning of a better era in the franchise's long history.

Without question, this season has been an extremely positive one for the Rangers. In September, most figured they were headed for another long season and no one thought they would lead their division for most of the campaign.

Renney and his staff (Perry Pearn, Mike Pelino and Benoit Allaire) faced a huge challenge coming into training camp. And the head coach certainly knew it.

"We wanted to regain the credibility and respect here in this city and around the NHL," Renney said. "And I think we got a lot of people's attention. I have to give the players all the credit for that. Each player comes to training came with a choice. 'Am I going to buy in to the plan? Am I in or out?' Right from the start, these guys were all in."

Early in the season, through their play, the Rangers made it clear they were a different group in the post-lockout NHL.

"We wanted to develop of reputation that we come [to the rink] to work," Renney said. "We thought that would be a good starting point for us."

At the Olympic break, the Rangers seemed unstoppable. They carried an eight-game (7-0-1) unbeaten streak into the break. That streak included a 4-2 home-ice win over the Maple Leafs. The game, played on a Friday night, might have been the high point of the season. Jagr had two goals and an assist, Lundqvist turned back all Leaf chances and the home crowd sang the club's theme song, "Sweet Caroline," deep into the evening.

After the break, the club continued to battle, but the wins got a little tougher to come by. By April, they seemed to be running on fumes. A season-ending five-game losing streak cost the Rangers the Atlantic Division title. And, worse yet, it set them up for a first-round match with the red-hot Devils.

In the playoff series, the Rangers were never really close. In the four games, the Rangers held the lead for a scant 4:39. And, in total, the Rangers were outscored 17-4.

"There are always reasons for such a slide," Renney said. "But, really, there are no excuses. We'll try to learn from it. Right now, it hurts. And it's supposed to hurt so that you want to do something about it."

For Renney and the Rangers, that's what this disappointment should be about. It should be a learning experience. It should be something to build on. It should be a stepping stone to further success down the road.

The Rangers took a big step forward this season. And no matter how bad this first-round sweep feels, the team and its fans shouldn't forget that.

EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.