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That was not the end, that was the beginning

New York Rangers v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Six Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

My process of dealing with an elimination game loss has been pretty consistent over my 33 years of Rangers hockey.

I take in everything once things are done. The Rangers huddling around each other, the other team celebrating, listening to the announcers talk about the Rangers losing or whatever it is. I watch the handshake line, see who hangs out a little longer with who, see who is taking it the hardest. In those moments, the fresh emotions form a sort of shield around the true raw emotions that come later.

That was what happened Saturday night.

And then I saw Chris Kreider hug Mika Zibanejad as they exited the ice.

That clip embodies so much of those true emotions that exploded out. The pride in what they accomplished. The hurt in not taking another step. The very real, very there sadness of it being over.

It’s just so many things all at once. Kreider throwing the iPad when Zibanejad was questioning himself after a clean shot hits the post. Jacob Trouba joking about it afterwards. A photo I hadn’t seen before of Frank Vatrano hanging his arm around Artemi Panarin after a win in the Second Round. Panarin joking he was told to shoot more after his game-winner in Game 7. Andrew Copp telling Chris Drury he is “sorry about the first round pick” when the Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. Igor Shesterkin doing what he does (there’s too many things, from the insanity on the ice to the comments thanking the crowd off of it). Ryan Reaves telling Alexis Lafrenière who was nervously listening to the anthem before Game 1 that it’s the “same game, only louder” to calm him down. It’s Ryan Lindgren fighting to come back — and play well! — through injuries that would have left me lying on the road.

It’s coming back from 3-1 down against the Penguins in the First Round, then from 2-0 and 3-2 about Carolina. It’s winning two Game 7’s when no one believed in them. It’s about this team playing with an attitude of not caring who they’re up against, not caring what the score is, and not being afraid of anyone. It was big moments from big players, and bigger moments from young players who are taking that next step.

Oh and the tears. So many tears. I forgot how fun it is for the Rangers to be good again. The Rangers literally ruined the summer of 50% of Penguins fans and 100% of Penguins “media” members. National media folks crying their eyes out over the Rangers’ success. Even their grave dancing afterwards is fun because it shows just how much space this franchise has in everyone’s head. It was a joy.

The truth, though, is that group will never win a Stanley Cup together. That’s not a shot at the Rangers, or at the players, or saying the franchise won’t be back. I don’t mean it like that. I mean that literal group of guys will never be together again. Someone is going to go, someone else is going to come in. That core will be here for a very long time, but that room made me love the Rangers in a way I haven’t in a very long time, and they are gone forever.

But the playoffs being over doesn’t mean the impact of the playoffs is gone. Let’s be honest for a minute here, K’Andre Miller, Lindgren, Lafrenière, Filip Chytil, and Kaapo Kakko grew the hell up during the playoffs. The Kid Line was the best thing the Rangers had going for them in more than half the games the Rangers played — well, when they were allowed to play together.

Braden Schneider is going to be a better hockey player because of the past six weeks as well. I could write fifty articles each on the impact both Shesterkin and Adam Fox have had on this team and what they did in the playoffs. And of all of them, Igor is the oldest at 26.

The core of this team that will be back next year is going to be so much better for these playoffs. Chytil might have gone from “trade fodder” (not that I agree with it) to second line center from April to June. Lafrenière started taking shifts over the way you expect a first overall pick to, and Gerard Gallant started trusting him more.

That is the easy part. The hard part is going to be for Drury to correctly identity who is and isn’t dead weight. Patrik Nemeth probably played himself off the team. Ryan Strome can’t come back anywhere near the price he wants — and the Rangers should just probably move on from him. Tyler Motte should be kept at a reasonable rate. Copp will depend on what he wants and what the Rangers can do with the other pieces.

Unlike 2014 and 2015, when the Rangers’ core was much older and the team made a series of disasters mistakes that led to the window closing probably a year sooner than it needed to, this core is so much younger. These guys will be back. The Rangers’ window is opening, present tense. They might have opened it, but it’s the start of that process. This is the beginning of the journey. And while I can’t tell you they’ll make it to the other side, I can guess over the next (hopefully) decade we’ll have more hockey games in June.

But you’re going to miss it today. You’re going to miss all of it.

You’re going to miss the way New York loves the New York Rangers when they’re good. There is really nothing like it. It’s sending my daughter to school in CT and my wife telling me a dozen people talked to her about the Rangers. It’s wearing a Rangers shirt and getting stopped by a stranger to talk about the series. It’s the Rangers dominating talk radio. It’s coaches and stars from other sports coming to the Garden to see playoff hockey. It’s sitting in the same spot for this game because they won when you watched the other game there, and now you need to move upstairs because they’re losing. It’s deciding what jersey to wear to the game. It’s watching half the fanbase write love poems to one another and the other half preform summoning rituals. It’s all of you (well, most of you) who make this place what it is.

It’s going to games with my dad like we did when I was a kid. It’s watching the Rangers play meaningful playoff games with my kids. Getting videos from my wife of my daughter singing the goal song while I’m singing the goal song at the Garden. The Rangers do that to me, I can’t find it anywhere else.

It isn’t just the Rangers you miss out on when things are done, it’s everything else. I get how much you hurt. I understand how empty and hollow it feels. I feel it too. But you know what else I feel?

That wasn’t the end, I promise you.

That was the beginning.