By Sean Hartnett

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Reaching hockey’s mountaintop is no easy task. The Rangers have come tantalizingly close to getting their fingerprints on Lord Stanley in recent playoff campaigns. Having qualified for the Eastern Conference Final in three of the past four seasons and coming up short of championship glory, they have been the NHL’s nearly men.

“It’s painful right now, it really is,” goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said following the Rangers’ Game 7 elimination. “You put your heart and soul into this entire year to try and get back and get an opportunity to play in the Final. We were 20 minutes away.”

Indeed, 20 minutes was all that separated the Rangers from making a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance. Conference championship hats and T-shirts bearing the Rangers’ shield were waiting to be unpacked. The Prince of Wales Trophy was in touching distance. What unfolded was a third period that felt like a punch in the gut to every member of the Rangers and every fan clad in blue, red and white in the Tri-State Area.

So close, yet so far away. The Tampa Bay Lightning proceeded to neutralize the Rangers through textbook, shutdown defending in the final frame. Two Lightning goals were enough to extinguish the Rangers. The visitors built an impenetrable fort around goaltender Ben Bishop, who didn’t have to break much of a sweat to earn a 22-save shutout. In fact, the Rangers were unable to register a shot on goal during the final 6:50.

A lot of things have to break right to be the last team standing, the one that gets to parade the shiny silver chalice across the ice amid a sea of flashbulbs. Yet again, this wasn’t the Rangers’ year. The newly crowned Eastern Conference champion Lightning proved they could beat the Rangers skill-for-skill in wide-open track meets and through disciplined, defensive clinics.

“Just like us, they can play two different games,” Lundqvist said. “They can play a tight game and they can go and score.”

Despite their shortcomings, this Rangers team deserves to be celebrated because it is a band of brothers that genuinely gave everything possible in hope of bettering last year’s five-game Stanley Cup Final exit. They understand the weight and responsibility that comes with representing the franchise’s proud Original Six history, and the hustling New Yorkers that occupy the Garden seats and live and breathe Rangers hockey.

“As a fan, they see what we go through and they go through it as well, emotionally,” Lundqvist said. “I think we all feel, at least, that we put everything we had and we really did everything we could to try to make it back to the Final.”

Following the final horn, Lundqvist was so distraught that backup goaltender Cam Talbot had to console him before he was able to bring himself to take part in the postgame handshake line.

No Ranger gave more in Game 7 than captain Ryan McDonagh, who gutted through a broken foot that had troubled him over the course of multiple series games.

“Mac has been playing on a broken foot, and we sort of got caught there after warm-up,” Vigneault said. “The freezing hadn’t kicked in, so we weren’t sure if he was going to be able to play. So, at that time we made the decision to go with seven (defensemen). He went back in right at the start of the first period, and it kicked in a little bit. But he played through a lot of pain.”

McDonagh symbolized the drive of this Rangers team. Clearly, he wasn’t the only Ranger pushing through tremendous pain in hope of capturing a championship. The Rangers are yet to officially announce breakup day plans. It could come on Monday. If so, that’s when further injuries will be revealed.

“He’s a tough guy,” alternate captain Marc Staal said of McDonagh. “He’s giving everything he could for us. That’s what you need from a captain. He was leading us the whole way through this whole thing.”

The pain of seeing their Stanley Cup dream snatched away was evident in the eyes of the Rangers when their dressing room door opened.

“I’m proud of this group,” alternate captain Martin St. Louis said. “This group played hard. It’s a tough group. They played through injuries, they played through a lot of stuff. We can hold our head high. We played hard, we just came up empty. It’s a tough feeling for everybody.”

Staal couldn’t stand the thought of inevitable offseason roster changes.

“It’s a great group of guys,” Staal said. “We’ve had a lot of success, a lot of fun playing with each other this year. We’ll see what the offseason brings. I’m really proud of this group, the way we fought all year long. We fought through some injuries.”

Lundqvist is a king without a Stanley Cup championship crown. St. Louis’ Hall of Fame ability evaporated in front of our very eyes. Rick Nash isn’t as dominant as Lightning captain Steven Stamkos.

But you know what? This team showed guts and resiliency with every oncoming twist and turn during the playoffs. The Rangers are a dedicated group of team-first characters that have accomplished what few teams have been able to in recent years. They played with hearts as big as the city. Nearly men deserve to be celebrated too.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.