CHICAGO -- Inside what is always a somber dressing room when the clock strikes midnight on a team’s season, GM Dean Lombardi grabbed Jarret Stoll and hugged him tightly.
Not sure what he told him in his right ear, but I suspect it would be along the lines that Stoll, like the rest of his teammates, left it all on the ice Saturday night in a gutsy performance by the banged-up Los Angeles Kings.
After their 4-3 double-overtime loss to the Blackhawks, the champs are out, but they went down swinging.
"To be quite frank, this one hurt," said veteran Kings blueliner Rob Scuderi, one of those championship warriors. "I though we outplayed them tonight. They had an unbelievable start, nobody can deny that, but for the rest of the night we gave ourselves a chance to win even with, I’ll call it adversity, that we kind of had to face tonight. But we’re a strong group, we played hard, played for each other and gave ourselves a chance. In the end, it wasn’t meant to be."
Lombardi was too emotional to size up his team’s season when approached by ESPN.com, but he did mention that he felt even in this incredibly hard-to-digest defeat, his team might actually learn as much if not more from this year’s playoffs than from winning it all last season.
Last year, the Kings skated swimmingly through the playoffs with a 16-4 record, holding 3-0 leads in each series. This year the injuries piled up, the road record stunk (1-8), some of the top players weren’t as dynamic and the journey had a heartbreaking ending.
"Once you win a Stanley Cup, it means a lot more getting knocked out," said Kings captain Dustin Brown. "You don’t really know what you play for until you do it. And tonight ... sucks."
Brown was one of several Kings who labored through pain, revealing when asked afterward that he tore the posterior cruciate ligament in the back of his left knee on his first shift of Game 6 against San Jose. Justin Williams said he played with a slightly separated shoulder after Sharks blueliner Brad Stuart rocked him with a big hit in Game 3 last round. Drew Dougthy (ankle) was also a little hobbled, Mike Richards, of course, recovered from a concussion in time to play Saturday night while Stoll told ESPN.com not only was he concussed last round after the hit from Raffi Torres but he also separated his shoulder on the play. And we’re missing a few guys.
"Three, four guys that were game-time [decisions] after Game 6 in San Jose," said Kings head coach Darryl Sutter. "I think most teams are going to say that, the farther you go. Also tells you how tough it is to win, how you need that. I know it's something that gets talked lots about. You have to stay healthy. Have you to be close to 100 percent, especially with your top guys. I know we weren't."
Which tells you how this team gutted it out despite all that, especially Saturday night when the Blackhawks went up 2-0 and it looked as if they would run the Kings right out of the rink.
"There's not much you can do about giving up bad goals," said Sutter. "If you put your head between your legs, you're going to get your [butt] kicked. We don't do that. We respond in the right way all the time."
All playoffs when knocked down, the Kings have picked themselves off the mat. And they did again Saturday night, climbing from a 2-0 hole and also tying the game with 10 seconds left in regulation.
"We showed a lot of character tonight," Kings executive Luc Robitaille told ESPN.com outside his team’s dressing room. "The game was over with 15 seconds left. If you want to have a great organization, you want your best players to be at their best in the big moments. They were there tonight."
What was the difference in the series?
"Turnovers, some rush chances and opportunities," said Stoll. "Again tonight, the 2-on-1 and the rush chance in overtime. We didn’t really establish our forecheck like we wanted in some games, and it hurt us."
Indeed, Patrick Kane’s overtime goal was a perfect microcosm of the series for the Kings, who simply turned the puck over and gave up too many odd-man breaks in the five games. That’s not typical Kings hockey.
All the Kings felt Saturday night was heartbreak, but in time they will realize that they defended their Cup championship with honor, a conference finals berth nothing to sneeze at when you consider the struggles of past defending Cup champions in the salary-cap era. No team has won back-to-back titles since the 1997 and 1998 Red Wings, and there’s a reason for that. It’s mighty difficult, both from a physical and mental point of view.
The Kings had a terrific season.
"It’s disappointing now, probably we’ll look back in a few weeks now and think that," said Robitaille. "But right now when you’re this close, you want to go all the way. Because we know how special that is. But the guys certainly showed a lot in these playoffs. It wasn’t easy. Last year was abnormal that we [went up] 3-0 every [series]. But they showed a lot of character."
As far as Sutter is concerned, there's nothing to be disappointed about in terms of the team’s effort this season.
"We got beat in the conference finals by the best team in the conference, at the end of the day,” said Sutter. "...Once you set the bar up there, then that's your bar. So, obviously, we're disappointed to lose to Chicago, but we're certainly not disappointed in how we played. I mean, I think you look at our season, other than not getting home ice, we've done everything we've wanted."
Not quite everything because they know all too well what that feels like, but you have a feeling these guys will be back again.