For the past few weeks, the Buffalo Sabres have been playing their final games with the knowledge that they had already fallen short of their season goal, which was to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010-11.
That advanced knowledge didn't soften the disappointment felt in the dressing room at KeyBank Center on Monday, another locker cleanout day that had come too soon.
"It was a very disappointing season," Sabres captain Brian Gionta said. "I don't think anyone is happy with where we sit. There's not much positive to be drawn except that, hopefully, the feeling we had after the game, guys realized how devastated and disappointed we are and they're not willing to accept that come next year."
As they gave their exit interviews, many of the players were faced with the same general question: Where did this season go wrong? The Sabres had concluded last season having played the second half of their schedule at a 94-point pace. This, they thought, could be the year for them to take the next step.
There were injuries. Jack Eichel went down with a high-ankle sprain on the eve of the season opener and missed the first 20 games of the season. Evander Kane went down one day later and missed 12. Johan Larsson's season was limited to 36 games, while Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo missed 10 and 17 games, respectively.
But the general answer from the players as to why they fell short didn't have to do with those ailments. Rather, the response echoed to the concerns that Robin Lehner addressed following a loss to Vancouver in February: The Sabres never found a way to play within their system consistently.
"I don't think we played a full, structured game," Lehner said. "I don't know that we had too many full 60-minute good efforts. That's something we've got to work on. I think we played an open game, back-and-forth game, and it doesn't work."
Without buying into the team identity, Gionta said, the Sabres had nothing to fall back on when times were tough.
"We'd have a good week, we get ourselves in a good position, the games mean a lot and we've got to find a way to fall back on our foundation," Gionta said. "At times, we didn't have a foundation to fall back on. We didn't have a style of play that we were playing consistently enough that, when things aren't going our way, this is what we fall back on."
"We can't expect to continue to do the same things, do it the same way and have a better result," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "That change - it's got to change - and that change comes with some uncomfortable times and some unhappy people at different times. But that's something we're going to keep pushing on and keep pushing for our team because we have to know we have to change if we're going to develop into a team that we think we can be, which is a winning team."
If there was another common theme to be found in the comments from throughout the day, it was that the disappointment level only seemed to be heightened by the fact that the players in the room believed they did have the right personnel in place to make the playoffs.
Whenever the Sabres were on the doorstep, however, they seemed to take two steps back, like when they were swept in a home-and-home series with Boston in late December or on a road trip in Colorado and Arizona coming out of their bye week.
"We've all seen how good some periods have been," Lehner said. "That's the frustrating part. I've talked about it a little bit, I feel like we have a really good team in here that showed in stretches how good we can be. We stopped doing what makes us successful, that's disappointing."
Video: CLEANOUT: LEHNER
"Like I said from the start of the year, I believe this team is a playoff competitive team," alternate captain Josh Gorges said. "And I think, throughout games this season, we've showed that. We've played the top teams in the League. We've played them hard and we've won games against them. But we need to know how to do that consistently. That's going to come to how we prepare for practice, how we come to the rink mentally for meetings and video, everything … We need to grow up a little bit."
Video: CLEANOUT: GORGES
Jake McCabe said he expects the Sabres to come into next season with a chip on their shoulder. If they treat it right, it's possible that Monday, a day that seemed so difficult as it was happening, could one day serve as a lesson learned.
"The biggest thing for this group right now is remember this feeling," defenseman Cody Franson said. "Remember what we did to get us here and the inconsistences that we can't have. If you can learn from it, it can be something you can build on and hopefully you can use it.
"But right now it's not a fun day."
You can watch find all of the interviews from throughout the day here. Here's more of what was said on Monday:
Gionta hoping to return
Gionta's three-year deal is up, meaning he'll be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He's 38, but has said throughout the season that he hopes to continue playing beyond this season, and he reiterated on Monday that his preference is to remain in Buffalo.
"I hope so," he said. "I'd like to see this through and find a way to take that next step and be that team that can make the playoffs. I think we can. I think we have the guys in the room, it's just about finding our way and getting there more consistently."
Video: CLEANOUT: GIONTA
Those of Gionta's teammates who were asked about his potential return all said they'd like to see him back as well.
"Even last night, the way he played, he's still got it and he's still got that burning desire inside of him," defenseman Zach Bogosian said. "I hope he's back."
Larsson speaks for the first time since his injury
Video: CLEANOUT: LARSSON
Larsson's injury can sometimes be overlooked in comparison to those sustained by Eichel, Kane and Okposo. Make no mistake, his absence after dislocating his wrist and elbow in Boston on Dec. 31 changed the complexity of the Sabres lineup, as Marcus Foligno described on Monday.
"He was a depth guy and a centerman that I loved to play with," Foligno said. "Simple, hardworking, he was physical. I think he went down against Boston, it was a different team. We were definitely different when it came to the centerman positon … Losing a guy like Larry, who's good on faceoffs, good on the penalty kill, he can play the power play, he's a very, very good player for our team."
Prior to his injury, Larsson had scored six goals and five assists in 36 games while also maintaining the defensive checking role he had established last season.
"It's a tough League, you've got to be good every night but I felt good about my game before [the injury] happened," he said.
Eichel, Reinhart remain unsatisfied
Video: CLEANOUT: EICHEL
Eichel ranked 10th in the entire NHL with 57 points (24+33) since making his season debut on Nov. 29, but he was understandably unhappy with the way the season had come to an end on Monday. He placed a lot of the onus on himself.
"I tried to take a little more ownership this year," he said. "It's tough. You're out of the lineup for 21 games and you come back, and you're still trying to find your game and [I was] a bit inconsistent. I think more than anything, to be a leader on a team, to be a leader in any type of sport or business or whatever you're doing, you have to perform. And if you're not performing, who's going to follow you?"
" … I think that I haven't scratched the surface of where I can be," Eichel continued later.
Reinhart, meanwhile, scored 47 points after scoring 42 as a rookie last season, a total he said left him unsatisfied as well.
Video: CLEANOUT: REINHART
"This is a big one," Reinhart said, referring to the upcoming summer. "Last year at this point, doing this interview, asking if I would be happy with the same kind of [season] numbers-wise, from a numbers standpoint, I said I would want to duplicate that. After doing that, I don't feel satisfied at all. I feel there's more to give. This summer's going to be a big step to proving that."
O'Reilly, Girgensons headed to Worlds
O'Reilly will look to defend his gold medal with Team Canada at the IIHF World Championship, which will be held in Cologne, Germany and Paris, France beginning on May 5. Girgensons will also be participating as a member of Team Latvia.
As for other players who were asked about participating at Worlds, Rasmus Ristolainen (Finland), Lehner (Sweden) and Eichel (USA) all said they were unsure. Evander Kane (CAN) and McCabe (USA) said they will not be participating, and Reinhart said he had not yet been contacted by Team Canada.