SAN JOSE -- The end, no matter when it comes, is always sudden and always painful for the team on the losing side of the Stanley Cup Final.
"The playing, the traveling, playing every other day for a long time, you can't believe you're not still playing," San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. "It doesn't feel like it should ever end and that you should keep playing."
But there are no more games for these Sharks. Their Stanley Cup dream was pronounced dead on Sunday at SAP Center after the Penguins ground out a 3-1 victory in Game 6 to win the fourth championship in franchise history.
"The end is like hitting a wall," said coach Pete DeBoer, who came up two wins short of a Cup triumph for the second time in five years. DeBoer coached the New Jersey Devils in 2012 when they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in six games. "You've been going since September; 106 games, how many hundreds of thousands of miles in the air. A special group. But only one team can win."
The Sharks, in the Final for the first time in the 25-year history of the franchise, had hoped to win and push the series to Game 7. Instead, they watched as the Penguins threw their gloves jubilantly towards the heavens, weaved deliriously through the discarded equipment to embrace in bear hugs and collapse into a pig pile in front of their net.
Video: Postgame 6/12: Thornton
The San Jose players, their tanks suddenly empty, leaned on their sticks or slumped on their bench, watching helplessly and lethargically as the Pittsburgh celebration started to gain steam.
They waited patiently for closure, for the traditional handshake line that signals the end of every playoff series.
"At the end of the day, you battled for two weeks for a dream you have had for so long," defenseman Brent Burns said, the din of the celebrating Pittsburgh fans leaking into the room and competing with the unbearable silence for control of the moment. "It was tight, it was hard hockey. On both sides of the handshake, it is just respect. It's one of the best things about hockey.
"You battle against a guy for two weeks. It's good to look him in the eye and congratulate him. Obviously, it is better to be on the other side."
The handshake line is always the cue for hockey teams to move on to the next task, be it the next series or the start of the offseason.
For the Penguins, it was the start of the pleasurable experience of accepting the Stanley Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and beginning a party that will rage all summer.
For the Sharks, it was the most painful task of starting the autopsy of the 2015-16 season, the best in the history of the franchise, but still not good enough.
It [stinks], you know," said forward Joe Thornton, who has played in the NHL for 18 years but never gotten to the Cup Final until this spring. "That's the bottom line, it [stinks]. We thought we had the team by going through the teams we went through in the West [to get here]. It's just tough right now."
Video: Postgame 6/12: Jones
Each player in the dressing room understood almost immediately that the Sharks had let an opportunity slip away.
Sure, all the focus heading into the series was on the Cup dreams held by the veterans of the group: Thornton, Pavelski, Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau. But each player had a dream about making history, about having his name inscribed on the trophy that makes hardened men go all weepy, about spraying champagne and forming a bond with his teammates that could never be broken.
"[Thornton]'s a guy that means so much to everyone in this room," Burns said. "He's done so much. It's tough not to climb the mountain all the way with him. To not get up there, it's tough."
At some point this summer, and it will likely be a different point for each player, the pain will ease and fonder memories will bubble to the surface. One day they will be able to remember all that they accomplished this season, the story they came together as brothers to write, the sound of the Shark Tank in full roar like it was Sunday, even after the battle had been lost.
"It's been such a great run," Burns said, pulling at his playoff beard as he searched for the words to describe a journey few can comprehend. "It's been fun.
"I don't even know what day it is. I know it is June. But whatever day it is, this a special group of guys. Sometimes, you lose in the first or second round and it feels hard, and then you get a group like this and you get a chance [to go all the way] and it has just been fun."
But now the fun is over. It ended abruptly at 7:46 p.m. local time. The pain, which follows the numbness, is right around the corner for the Sharks.
"It'll hit the body in a couple of days," Burns said, "and it won't feel good."