Dean Lombardi made his way to the locker room after Game 5 of the Western Conference Final and the emptiness sank it so deep, it practically echoed through the corridors of the United Center.
The Los Angeles Kings' general manager was understandably too emotional to talk immediately after his defending Stanley Cup champions were eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night, but the unfiltered Lombardi described it to reporters fewer than 24 hours later.
"I walked in the room when it was over and, pretty much like the players -- dead silence and you're staring at nothing," Lombardi said in a conference call Sunday. "There's almost no emotion. You're almost frozen. I don't know what that means. There's so much going through your head there's nothing going through your head."
Lombardi, who said he spoke with coach Darryl Sutter until 4:30 a.m. and went to sleep an hour later, greeted the new day with his head filled with questions about his roster when the lower salary cap kicks in this summer.
L.A. is in a deli of a pickle with eight unrestricted free agents and three restricted. The gist: Lombardi said that the re-signing of defenseman Robyn Regehr last month doesn't mean they can't bring back pending unrestricted free agent veteran Rob Scuderi.
Lombardi also indicated he would like to bring back underachieving left wing Dustin Penner, whose $3.25 million salary this season broke down to $1.625 million per goal in the regular season.
"I'm going to try everything I can to bring the pieces back," Lombardi said when asked about Penner. "It's going to be a little more difficult."
Budding star defenseman Slava Voynov is due a raise from his $787,000 salary this season after he again proved his worth as a terrific offensive defenseman with 13 points in 18 Stanley Cup Playoff games. At 23, Voynov has already played in 38 playoff contests.
Defensemen Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez and Keaton Ellerby are also set to become restricted free agents along with bottom-six forwards Kyle Clifford, Jordan Nolan and Trevor Lewis. Lombardi does have a movable piece in restricted free agent goalie Jonathan Bernier, a potential No.1 stuck behind Jonathan Quick, whose 10-year, $58 million contract extension kicks in next season.
Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the salary cap will drop to $64.3 million for 2013-14.
"We've taken this to nuclear science now in terms of how you put these equations together," Lombardi said of the cap challenge. "There's a bit of a vise here that certainly you couldn't project it … we've got a challenge here, but I'm confident that we can meet it. It's something that's unfortunate."
Lombardi had no update on defenseman Willie Mitchell, who missed the season because of surgery to clean up cartilage in his knee in early December and had setbacks that Lombardi later revealed to be career threatening.
"I'll probably leave it at that now," Lombardi said. "It's possible [to be career threatening]. It's a day to day thing in terms of his progress. He's at least making progress, but problem is it's the same progress as before …. your guess is as good as mine."
Perhaps more disconcerting was the non-news that top center Anze Kopitar was not dealing with an injury during the playoffs. Top line teammates Dustin Brown (partially torn knee ligament) and Justin Williams (slight shoulder separation) revealed their ailments Saturday, but Kopitar said there was nothing hindering his lack of production – three goals and nine points in 18 postseason games -- that forced Sutter to demote Kopitar to the third line.
"In regards to being injured during these playoffs, there was no significant injury that I suffered," Kopitar said. "Everything was normal. A few bumps and bruises."
Kopitar, a legitimate Selke Trophy candidate when he's in top form, looked limited in his upper-body movement, which prompted speculation from a possible shoulder injury to a hand or wrist injury. Lombardi also indicated there was nothing significant holding Kopitar back and talked about Kopitar needing to use this as a learning lesson for next season.
"There's no secret to it that we needed more from me in terms of the production this postseason," Kopitar said. "I honestly wish I could point a finger and done something different ... it's definitely frustrating because of it but that's the way it goes sometimes. It's a matter of working at it mentally and preparing for these kinds of moments.
"Obviously you're working hard and the results are not coming. I'm a competitive guy and I want to get it going every night …. I'm pretty sure it's not lack of caring. Sometimes you try harder and it backfires on you. For me, it's a matter of evaluating things like that -- get rid of those slumps and not let them drag on too long."
Quick, who said "there's no need to reveal anything you were going through" in regards to any of his possible injuries, was also hard on himself although he mostly seemed like the least of L.A.'s issues. The reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner had about three bad goals allowed – a puck handling gaffe against the St. Louis Blues, Bryan Bickell's 55-foot wrist shot in Game 4 of the conference final and Duncan Keith's long soft shot that beat him five-hole in Game 5.
"It wasn't good enough obviously," Quick said. "I wasn't very good throughout the regular season. I got a little better later in the season. Played pretty good hockey for a couple of rounds, and it was up and down this past series. Obviously there's that feeling of underperformance for a while. You're going to think about that all summer."
Quick and the Kings can take solace that they were one of the few recent teams to win the Stanley Cup and advance to the conference final the next season.
"That shows you how hard it is," Lombardi said. "You can't condone losing. You have to condone their sense of honor. They didn't quit. They deserve to be commended for the fact that right now they're not satisfied. You never want to be in mode where you're out in the first round and it's like, 'Good season.'
"There were a lot of different challenges they met here."
Lombardi has long talked about changing the culture of L.A., from perpetual loser before the Cup year to the expectation level of today. That was evident in the stubborn reluctance to go down in the face of a 2-0 series deficit to St. Louis and a Game 7 win against the San Jose Sharks in the conference semifinals.
Lombardi said he got emails from other GMs commending the fortitude of his team.
"The one thing about this group all along -- they've learned from their failures," Lombardi said. "Nobody can say in any way shape or form that they quit."
Mike Richards embodied the Terminator-like resilience of the Kings when he returned from a concussion and got the late goal that forced overtime in Game 5. L.A. took control for most of that overtime, only to lose on a 2-on-1.
Richards compared the Chicago series to when his Philadelphia Flyers team erased a 3-0 series deficit against the Boston Bruins in 2010, "but I think this one was the most physically draining."
Afterward the Kings were emotional –and angry. Yes, they were injured. But this was not the final destination.
"I still believed we could come back and win," Richards said. "I think that's the frustrating, devastating part of it. I think that's the most heartbreaking thing when you believe you can win and maybe deserve to win last night and get the opportunity … getting the loss was the most heartbreaking part of it."
Disappointment in not reaching the Stanley Cup Final and missing a chance to repeat? The Kings will nurse their sorrow all summer.
But that's the new standard in Los Angeles.