Alex Ponikarovsky whacked at the puck. So did Ilya Kovalchuk. It ricocheted to Adam Henrique.
And then it was all over.
“It’s the worst feeling you can feel,” Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said later in a silent visitors dressing room.
There will not be a 1994 redux, as a remarkable Rangers season came to an end Friday night in the Prudential Center with a 3-2 overtime loss to the Devils in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Devils won the best-of-7 series, four games to two.
Henrique scored the game-winner.
The Devils will meet the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup finals. The Devils will be attempting to win the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup championship in five appearances. In 2003, the Devils defeated Anaheim in seven games to win the franchise’s third Cup.
The Western Conference No. 8 seed Kings qualified for the franchise’s second Cup finals appearance by beating No. 1 seed Vancouver in five games, swept No. 2 seed St. Louis and eliminated No. 3 seed Phoenix in five games.
The Kings lost in five games to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1993 Stanley Cup finals, their only other appearance. That is probably best remembered for Marty McSorely being called for playing with an illegal stick in Game 2.
As the Devils and Kings take center stage starting Wednesday at the Rock, the Rangers will be forced to accept the harsh truth that better team won the series despite the regular season point differential. The Rangers were overwhelmed by the stage and by the Devils.
“We know they’re coming,” Rangers head coach John Tortorella said. “Give them some credit. They did it through the whole playoffs. They’re a pretty good hockey club. They’re a balanced team. They’re a pretty good team.”
That was proven time and again over the course of six games, including the first period Friday night. The Devils had a 2-0 lead at the first intermission against an opponent that was dead. The Rangers had flatlined and their obituary was being prepared as they trailed an energized rival who smelled blood. Ryan Carter had shoved a Stephen Gionta rebound under Henrik Lundqvist 10:05 into the first period. Kovalchuk finished a tic-tac-toe passing play with a power-play goal 3:51 later that put the Rangers in the two-goal hole.
“It’s tough,” Callahan said of the slow start.
But when the second period began, it was the Rangers who played with confidence while the Devils appeared tentative. The Rangers outshot the Devils, 13-7, in the second and forced Devils head coach Pete DeBoer to use his only timeout 4:39 into the period.
“I really thought we were coming,” Tortorella said.
Ruslan Fedotenko poked in a rebound off a Ryan McDonagh wraparound attempt under Martin Brodeur at 9:47 of the second period to halve the deficit. Callahan equalized at 13:41 when Dan Girardi’s point shot pinballed off of the captain’s leg.
The Rangers had the momentum, but could not capitalize. The Rangers outshot the Devils 35-29 for the game, and 21-15 in the final two periods of regulation and overtime.
“We had chances. I thought the third period we controlled territorially,” Tortorella said. “We felt very comfortable as we played those last two periods. But they make a big play at the end.”
While Tortorella would not begin the post-mortem — that will come soon enough — he expressed pride in his team. But he offered a warning that playing three rounds in the playoffs is not the standard.
“We played 20 playoff games; we played a couple Game 7s. Been in some situations where they had to scramble to win a series,” Tortorella said. “These are the evaluations you have to go through as you gain experience. We’re still a young club.
“I just don’t want us — and you hear it so much and I won’t accept it — [to say], ‘Oh you won a couple rounds; you got into the third round.’ That isn’t good enough. We still have to find a way to win another round and get there.”
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.