- Scott Burnside, NHL
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GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- When you're down 3-0 in a playoff series, "the end" is your constant companion.
It lurks in every penalty, every bouncing puck, every play.
For some, though, the playoff deficit carries with it an extra burden of dread, the knowledge that losing might mean not just the end of a season but of a career.
A day after the Rangers dropped into that bottomless 3-0 hole with a 5-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday, there were questions not only about the series deficit but also about two future Hall of Famers, Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan.
Would this mean the end for them, too?
It's hard to imagine Jagr will walk away after this series with Pittsburgh given his play the past two months. He was at the top of his game in Game 3, registering 10 shots on goal, and put on a brave face when asked about the immediate future.
"Once you get down 3-0, you got to look for something positive," Jagr said. "Let me tell you one thing, there's millions of playoff series played in hockey over those years, and you're going to forget a lot of them. You're going to remember the one you won in overtime, the Game 7, the finals but, you know, if you can do something special, everybody's going to talk about it forever. And there's a chance.
"People dream about that stuff, and so do I. It's never happened to me. I didn't want to be in that situation, but once you're in, you got to look at the positive. There's a lot on the table already because a lot of people have given up on you. That's going to make it sweeter."
But isn't it hard not to think about the big picture if you do lose one more game? The question of what might come next?
"I'm talking about the series, not my hockey career. I'm 36 feeling like 25," a grinning Jagr said. "I'm going to play [Thursday], trying to win the series back, not thinking about myself and what I'm going to do next season. It's going to take care of itself."
Still, there are many reasons to believe Jagr is done on Broadway, if not in the NHL, if the Rangers cannot extend their series versus the Penguins.
There are rumors he already has agreed to play next season in Russia, where he played during the lockout. There is also a train of thought that if he decides to stay in the NHL, he'll go somewhere with a more open offensive system, something that's more suited to his talent. Either way, it would be the end an era, at least in New York, and perhaps in the whole league.
Jagr, who won Stanley Cups as a young man in Pittsburgh in 1991 and 1992, has been the consummate pro in New York. He stilled the talk that he was a coach killer and a problem in the dressing room. He came within two points of winning a sixth scoring title in 2005-06. He led the Rangers to the playoffs in three straight post-lockout seasons.
He has been their best player this spring; he will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer; and he has made as much effort to engage in honest self-evaluation as any European player, even if the circumstances haven't always been perfect.
"I don't think about what I do. I do it because I want to win, and that's how I feel at that time," Jagr said. "Don't forget, this is playoffs, and I love this kind of situation. Always did and always will. You have to understand, there's a million people criticizing you for whatever reason, but look back on hockey history. How many guys were able to play on some kind of level at my age?
"Of course, I wish I could play every regular-season game like I do in the playoffs and if you don't produce on that level, even if you're better than some other guys, they're still going to say you don't have it anymore. But look at even the greatest players. Look at Wayne Gretzky. Did he score 200 points at age 35? I don't think so. Was he better than 70-80 percent of players in NHL? Yes, he was."
If Jagr's departure is hard to fathom, given his level of play and production, it is easier to see the end as close at hand for Shanahan.
Easier to see, but not easier to contemplate. It is always so for the great players.
Shanahan has long been a favorite with the media for his quick wit and keen observations of the game, but his profile has grown exponentially since the beginning of the lockout. He was a strong and vocal advocate for change, helping bring together the various power brokers within the game and forcing them to adopt changes that have served to revive a league in danger of collapse.
No one person saved the NHL, but Shanahan was a big cog in the machinery that was necessary to save the game from itself.
Before Game 3, Shanahan was standing in the lobby of Madison Square Garden, waiting for an elevator to take him to the locker room. It took awhile, and Shanahan, a little gray around the temples, waited as people passed by. If you didn't know better, you'd say he had the look of a business executive at the end of a long day. In many ways, he is just that.
He has one assist in this series, playing between 15 and 17 minutes a night, but Shanahan wouldn't be drawn into any discussion about what might happen beyond the next game.
"I don't want to talk about that stuff. I'm just thinking about that next game," he said. "I dig for everything I have on every shift of every game I play. But it's now a matter where we're facing the realization that, unless the production is there from us individually and as a team, obviously [the Penguins] found a way to be on top in each and every game.
"What can you say? I mean, you give your hardest, you give everything you've got, everything you have left, and you hope to get a win. You just start from there. One simple win."
There is a temptation to suggest the game Shanahan has helped save has passed him by. But even if it has, his situation is by no means unique.
Over in Denver, Peter Forsberg will be facing the same questions with the Avalanche trailing Detroit 3-0. Jeremy Roenick will be asked about his future as the San Jose Sharks stare into the playoff abyss against Dallas.
The game passes all of them by at some point, but that doesn't make it any easier when the end comes knocking.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
15dScott Burnside and Craig Custance