NEW YORK — Championship windows are a funny thing; no one is ever really sure when they open, but everyone has a pretty good idea of when they close.
“I’m pissed off,” a blunt Rick Nash said after the New York Rangers lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final 2-0 to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night. “It feels like we had our best chance to get a championship and we lost.”
A look around the Rangers locker room at Madison Square Garden following the first Game 7 home loss in franchise history reveals that maybe Nash has a point; the 2014-15 Rangers were a win-now team that couldn’t win now, and it may never be this good again with this core.
Henrik Lundqvist, sitting dejectedly in his locker talking about a wasted opportunity after a Presidents’ Trophy season, will be 34 years old during the 2016 postseason; Nash turns 31 in June and may have figured out how to have success in the playoffs one year too late; Dan Boyle and Martin St. Louis are 38 and 39, respectively, and it’s possible both played their final games as Rangers on Friday, even if Boyle has one more year left on a regrettable deal.
Dan Girardi is 31 years old, and Marc Staal turns 29 next season.
There are some important players still entering the prime of their careers—Ryan McDonagh, Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin are all 26 or younger—but this group, one that came so close to a championship a year ago, took a step back in 2015.
Like a stark reminder that time is slowly ravaging us all, the youthful Lightning, a team on the upswing, got to celebrate a berth in the Stanley Cup Final right in front of the Rangers’ weathered faces.
Rangers general manager Glen Sather took an all-in mentality at the past two trade deadlines, using first-round picks and top prospect Anthony Duclair to help acquire St. Louis and Keith Yandle in separate trades.
It’s left some Rangers, especially the older ones, wondering if it will ever be this good again.
“In a career, you don’t get too many opportunities to play on a team like this and get a chance to win a championship,” Nash said. “It’s pretty frustrating right now.”
“I thought we had the team to do it this year,” Girardi said. “I hate to say it, but I am getting older and the window might be closing.”
In the aftermath of such a crushing defeat, it's easy for an athlete to let emotion get the best of him or her. To come so close to a childhood dream only to have it slip away in two straight years is probably not the best time for introspection about windows and championships and how the latter has to slide through the former.
As long as Lundqvist is in his prime, he can hold open that window.
As Game 7 proved, he can't do it single-handedly.
But the sight of Lundqvist in full pads holding his head in his hands at his locker after a season-ending loss has become as common a springtime sight as flowers blooming and pollen coating automobiles. All the great ones eventually stop being great. Time hasn't begun to ravage Lundqvist like it has others, but he's acutely aware that it will come for him eventually.
"We worked really long and hard to get here into this position," Lundqvist said after a long sigh. "To come up short, it's tough."
One of the players shipped out of New York in an attempt to become a championship team was Ryan Callahan, the former captain that was part of the St. Louis trade at the 2014 deadline. He spent last year watching his ex-teammates and longtime friends play in a Cup Final while he sat at home lamenting the cruel twist that kept him from playing for a Cup.
One year later, he was celebrating on the MSG ice with a bunch of fresh-faced kids.
"It's tough," Callahan said. "Going into the series, you knew one of us wasn't going to go on. I have a lot of close friends over there and they have a very, very good team.
"I guess it's my turn now to get a shot at it."
While Callahan is getting his first shot at it, it's possible the Rangers may have had their last, best shot at it.
All statistics via NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.