ANAHEIM -- There was no solace in losing for the Anaheim Ducks.
The fact that they made it one round further than last season in the Stanley Cup Playoffs did not ease the pain. The fact that the Game 7 loss Saturday came against a team, the Chicago Blackhawks, that has won the Stanley Cup twice in the past five years and reached the Western Conference Final in five of the past seven seasons can't be a used as a mitigating factor. The fact that Anaheim lost all of two games in regulation this entire postseason meant nothing in the cruel minutes after the final horn of a 5-3 loss that ended Anaheim's dreams for another season.
"We were right there," forward Andrew Cogliano said. "You're close, but you are so far away, really. That is how it goes."
That reality sank in as the Blackhawks poured onto the ice to celebrate another trip to the Stanley Cup.
At first, the majority of the Ducks sat on the bench, too disappointed to even move. Slowly, they stood and milled about their own end. Most were hunched over, sticks resting on their knees. Some looked to the rafters, perhaps silently beseeching the hockey gods to show some mercy. Others skated listlessly to their goalie, Frederik Andersen, to provide a word of encouragement or a reassuring pat to his goalie mask.
Then they lined up to shake hands with another team, another group of individuals that came together as a better, more complete, whole and took what the Ducks have wanted for so long. Finally, they mustered a last spasm of strength and lifted their sticks, saluting what remained of the home crowd before trudging to the refuge of their dressing room.
Last spring, it was the Los Angeles Kings who erased a 3-2 series deficit with a Game 7 victory in the Western Conference Second Round. The Ducks cursed their fate and promised to be better. The Kings, their most bitter rival, went on to win the Stanley Cup.
The year before that it was the Detroit Red Wings who won a Game 7 on Honda Center ice. Each time, the Ducks had won their division. Each time, their season ended earlier than they planned.
"Honestly, I have no words," said forward Patrick Maroon, who had two glorious first-period chances when the game was still close but could convert neither. "It's pretty disappointing for me. Obviously, everyone is this locker room wants to be there."
"There," of course, is in the Stanley Cup Final.
Now, it is "wait until next year" for these Ducks, a regular-season powerhouse that has failed to carry its success deep into the playoffs.
"It's over now," Maroon said, pressed into his corner stall, speaking in a voice far too soft for his power-forward presence. "You've got to learn from it. I guess you could say we were one game closer to the Stanley Cup Finals. And I guess you could say we made progress. But you don't want to make progress; you want the whole thing. So our team has to live with this until training camp again."
Every player on the team will grieve this loss in his own way
Defenseman Cam Fowler has been with the Ducks for five seasons. He has seen growth, but he has also seen sporting disappointment almost beyond description.
"You just feel like you are getting closer and closer ad we keep continuing to improve, but we can't seem to get to the point that we want to," he said in an almost apologetic tone before actually apologizing for letting down his teammates and the Ducks' fans. "I don't know what that is, but it is going to take a while to digest this. It's something I'll be thinking about for a while. I will use it as motivation for next year."
Others were more defiant.
Center Ryan Kesler, who was a piece of coarse sandpaper to the Blackhawks throughout this series, walked away after a promise of better times ahead.
Asked about the finality of the handshake line and its undeniable finality to the season, Kesler said: "Everything is over. It's the start of summer now and we're going to have to get over this soon and get ready for next year because I'm telling you right now this group is not done. We've got unfinished business."
Center - ANA
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 13
SOG: 33 | +/-: 2
Unfinished business. That was the slogan for the 2015 Ducks. They wore T-shirts with that very slogan on their backs. They promised that they had learned the proper lessons from the loss to the Kings last year and the Red Wings the year before. They believed the script would be different this time around.
They were wrong, but that is part of hockey. It is the losing and disappointments, the bottoms, which make the peaks so unforgettable and amazing. It is the feeling of euphoria that the Ducks still crave.
In the aftermath of another dispiriting loss, there were no words to gloss over the regrets each and every member of the Ducks will feel between now and training camp, if not longer. But in the end, there was also a sliver of hope; the idea that in unfinished business remains the opportunity to finally right the wrongs of the past and claim the glory they seek.
That belief is the only thing they have to get them through a summer that is three weeks longer than they would like it to be.
"It's going to hurt for a while," said coach Bruce Boudreau, whose teams have lost an NHL-record six Game 7s. "We truly believe that we're a different team and we had a really good chance of winning five more games.
"Didn't get done. You know, I mean, we'll have to live with that for the summer. But the same reason that these guys are great guys that came to play each and every night will be the same reason that they bounce back."