For 29 of the 30 teams in the NHL, the inescapable day of locker cleanouts and exit interviews is not a festive one. And so it went this afternoon inside Honda Center, as Ducks players met with coaches, management and each other for the final time before heading into an offseason where they'll inevitably wonder what might have been.
The Ducks are three days removed from a frustrating Game 6 loss in Nashville in which they appeared to outplay the Predators for the majority of the evening. A win in that game would have set the Ducks up for a Game 7 last night at Honda Center with a berth into the Stanley Cup Final on the line, but instead the Ducks have spent this time reflecting and lamenting.
"This was the toughest loss of my career," said an unsurprisingly stoic Ryan Kesler in a 10-minute session with media in a hallway outside the Ducks locker room. "It stung and it still stings."
Kesler and defenseman Kevin Bieksa were teammates in Vancouver when the Canucks lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, but they both said this one felt worse somehow. "That was hard. Trust me, I'm not ever going to get over that loss," Kesler said of the 2011 defeat to Boston. "But there was just something about this loss that stung more, especially the way we played that game. We left everything out there, and not coming away with the victory really hurts. But I think that's what is going to drive this team."
Agreed Bieksa, "For me, of all the years I've been in the playoffs and lost and that feeling after you shake hands and go back to the room, that was the worst I've had personally. Game 7 of the Final, obviously you're devastated, but you're exhausted and you feel like you left it all out there. This season, I just felt like we deserved better. It felt like we were the better team for a lot of the series, but we didn't get the job done when it counted. It just felt like this group was capable of so much more. It was super frustrating and sad, really."
While saying he wasn't 100 percent healthy in the postseason but opting against disclosing any lingering ailments, saying, "I think it's a big excuse when you talk about injuries and stuff. I'm not a big fan of guys divulging injuries [at this time of year].
He added, "They had injuries on their side, and we had injuries on ours. At the end of the day, we just fell short. I don't think there is anything we could have done differently other than score more goals. Right now it's too early. I'm sure I'm gonna sit and think about it and lose sleep over it. But right now, I'm just trying to digest it all."
Though Kesler and fellow captains Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry each turned 32 over the past year, Kesler remained optimistic about the makeup of this Ducks team.
"Hopefully we can keep this group together for the most part," he said. "This is one of the most special groups I've ever been a part of, and it's a bitter end. Talking with [goalie Jonathan] Bernier last night, he said a thing that stuck with me. They got close in LA [to winning a Cup in 2011] when he played for them and they kept the same exact group and came back and won the next year. I think we can do that, and he feels the same way."
He added that Ducks GM Bob Murray, "always does a great job at putting a team together and giving us the best chance to win every year. I have full faith in him as a general manager to make the right moves."
Murray gave his own an assessment on the state of the team, as well as some medical updates, including news that Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen will miss significant time with shoulder injuries.
"Between this year and two years ago [in the conference final] in Chicago, I couldn't really differentiate between the two because I felt in both cases, the group played its heart out," Murray said. "You couldn't ask for anything more as far as giving what they have. In that way, I'm very proud of them."
Murray's Ducks had a decent but unspectacular first half of the season, but got hot down the stretch and in the early going of the playoffs. Anaheim went a staggering 11-0-3 over the last 14 games of the regular season before sweeping Calgary in the First Round. They exorcised the demons of past Game 7 disappointments by downing the Oilers 2-1 at Honda Center in the Second Round before falling in six to Nashville.
"This year I thought we took a lot of steps forward," Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said. "I thought the way our group responded to things got better. We matured as a group, and that makes things a lot easier when you go into big games."
Getzlaf was second in the NHL with 19 points in 17 playoff games, though he didn't score a goal in the Nashville series after tallying seven over the first two rounds.
"Obviously when you get that close to the Final and having a chance to play for a Cup, it definitely leaves that empty feeling in your stomach," he said. "But our preparation has already started for next year. We are gonna need more from everybody. We didn't get it done this year, and going into to next season, we're going to have to up our preparation and be ready for when that puck drops."