If forced to choose one word, the Blackhawks were a "shocked" group late Sunday night.
After enduring the media, Jonathan Toews -- one of the few Hawks available to answer questions -- sat with head in hands, understanding completely and immediately what the Hawks had given away in overtime of Game 7.
"To think of how far we've come since last summer, to work as hard as we have to put ourselves in this position two years in a row, it's tough to think about," Toews said. "It will be tough to let that go. To think that it's over and all down the drain is very tough."
The road to one Stanley Cup is the hockey equivalent of climbing Everest. The attempt to repeat is akin to climbing Everest twice in consecutive days.
It has not happened in the salary-cap era. It has not happened since 1998.
The Hawks were a bounce away from the summit, from going back to back, the Rangers little more than road kill on their parade route.
All they had to do was show up from the start against the Kings. All they had to do was win that Game 2 at home.
What they really had to do was protect a lead, something they failed to do over and over again in the Western Conference finals. They blew leads nine times. They gave away 2-goal leads three times. They scored 4 goals and lost Sunday in Game 7. They gave up 4 goals or more five times in one series.
In one seven-game series. Unthinkable for this team.
What causes Toews so much pain is the understanding of how hard it is to win a game in the playoffs, let alone a series. Or two. Or three.
"This is a very bad feeling," he said. "It's a bitter pill to swallow."
It's very difficult to get this far in the postseason, and there are never any guarantees about next year. That's what's so daunting. This is what's so painful.
"This will sting for a while," Toews said. "That's the best 60 minutes we had all year. Last goal wins. Had a feeling it would come down to overtime, just looking for that one extra lucky bounce, but we ran out of time."
Yes, they lost on a tough bounce, but they left themselves no margin for error by falling behind 3-1 in the series, that result from failing to find their desperation until it was so late.
"To go down 3-1 to a team like that seemed insurmountable, but we gave ourselves a chance," Toews said. "Pretty amazing to have done that against a team like this."
The Hawks played very hard in Games 6 and 7, and deserved to win them both, but the key is giving yourself an out, some breathing room so that a series doesn't come down to a single bounce.
So should the ending be shocking? No, not taken in its entirety and with a long-term view. Before the season, a trip to the conference finals should have been considered an amazing feat.
"Just goes to show how hard it is to win a Stanley Cup even one time, let alone twice in a row," Toews said. "Pretty amazing what this group has accomplished."
It is amazing, and the series defeat stunning only because the Hawks rallied from so many deficits the last 13 months that it became the argument for them, rather than against them, especially after difficult series with St. Louis and Minnesota, and the rallies in 2013 against Detroit and Boston.
The truth is it should have been the argument against them. The truth is they relied once too often on their ability to flip the switch, and they ran into a very good team that short-circuited the operation.
The Kings were relentless and overcame everything the Hawks could throw at them and in the end overpowered them with skill and urgency.
Going into Sunday night, the Hawks were 13-0 in Games 5-7 last two years, 9-2 when facing elimination since 2011, and Sunday night they were trying to become the first team in history to successfully overcome a 3-1 series deficit in consecutive postseasons.
But it was against the best opponent the Hawks have faced since the Bruins a year ago, and in some ways better than Boston. The Kings were faster and just as physical, with depth of scoring the Hawks haven't seen in the postseason the last two years.
The Hawks played with fire and finally got burned.
They are too talented to consistently put themselves in such precarious positions, to have their backs against the wall and have to survive scare after scare. But the contradiction that is the Hawks is their skill and the knowledge that they can overcome anything.
Until they finally couldn't.
So it wasn't Sunday night when the Hawks gave away their chance to repeat. It was in Games 2, 3 and 4, when they failed to play with the urgency necessary to defeat a great opponent.
If they had done that and lost, the pain would not be as great. You tip your helmet and move along. But these Hawks, exhausted as they may have been all season, know deep down they gave away a historical opportunity.
The Hawks also know that next season, Los Angeles will be better, and so will Anaheim, Colorado and Minnesota. The division will be harder to escape and the conference more difficult to win.
It is so very hard to get this far, and so very painful to give away a ring on one bounce.
The harsh reality is they should have never let it come down to that.
And coming to terms with that will take a long time.
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