ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Oh, this stinker will be difficult to get over. For days, weeks even, the Ottawa Senators will think back to their tepid, curiously passive performance in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals and shake their heads at the strangeness of this 6-2 shellacking that ended their dream for another season.
But, over time, the memories of their turnovers and ill-advised penalties, spotty goaltending and lack of passion will fade, and in its place will be a sense of having gone where many hockey players only dream of going -- to the brink of the Stanley Cup.
Or, that's what should happen. Because for a team that has for many years been defined by its past shouldn't be defined by one game, not when they've accomplished so much.
"It's disappointing, obviously," said Ottawa center Mike Fisher, probably the Senators' most consistent player over the five-game finals. "No one likes to lose. But at the same time, we did get a lot accomplished this year. And overall, we did a good job in the playoffs."
This spring, the Senators proved that winning comes from learning hard lessons. They learned from regular-season adversity early on and became one of the hardest-working, productive teams in the NHL over the second half of the season. They didn't miss a beat in the playoffs, steamrolling through Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Buffalo, the NHL's best regular-season team, in three consecutive five-game series. In doing so, they proved they had learned about the great chasm that divides regular-season success and winning when it matters most.
"It's not fun going away without [the Stanley Cup], but we're going to hang our heads high," Fisher said. "We battled all year."
The problem for the Senators is they ran into a team that had learned its own lessons, having advanced to the Western Conference finals a season ago, losing to Edmonton in five games, and losing to New Jersey in the 2003 Stanley Cup finals in seven. This spring, the Ducks flirted with their own self-destructive tendencies, but were simply too much for the Senators, who seemed to have the life sucked out of them by Anaheim's relentless physicality.
If there is a positive for the Senators, it's that they now have a bird's-eye view of what it takes to make that final step.
''I think we'll learn from this," said captain Daniel Alfredsson, who single-handedly dragged his team back into Wednesday's deciding game, if only briefly. "I don't know if I'll get another chance to be here, but I know that when you get a chance to play in big games, you draw from that experience the next time. Hopefully, that's the case for our young guys."
At this level of the playoffs, the game is as much between the ears as it is on the ice. The Senators never seemed to get their heads in the right space to compete at this level. Many will point to the team's nine-day layoff that preceded the start of the finals. That's partly true, but not for the physical end of things, timing, conditioning or anything like that. Rather, the Senators spent nine days being feted by the media and fans, told over and over how good they were. And after the Ducks dispatched the Detroit Red Wings in six games, the prevailing feeling was the Ducks had too many flaws and the Senators too few and Ottawa would quite handily win the series.
Perhaps they started believing and stopped working. That was never more evident than Wednesday night in the fifth and final game of this series.
Coach Bryan Murray shuffled his forward lines in an effort to generate more offense and yet the Senators managed just three shots in the first period and five in the second, finishing with a paltry 13 shots overall. They took three minor penalties in the first six minutes of the game and the Ducks took advantage, scoring the first goal of the night one second after a brief 5-on-3 had expired. Not only did the Senators fail to generate any offense, they also failed to compete for most of the first half of the game and seemingly lost every single battle for the puck.
It was only after Alfredsson cut the Ducks' lead to 2-1 midway through the second period when the Senators showed more pizzazz; but each time they looked like they were ready to test the Ducks, another miscue or gaffe would derail their plans.
There was Chris Phillips' inexplicable decision to push the puck ahead of him from behind the Ottawa net before Ray Emery had returned to his crease; the puck bounced off the goalie's skates and into the net to restore the Ducks' two-goal lead less than two minutes after Alfredsson's first goal. Then, when Alfredsson, an inspiring figure amid a sea of the uninspired, scored a virtuoso short-handed goal to make the score 3-2, the Ducks responded with a power-play goal to once again restore their two-goal edge through two periods with Christoph Schubert in the box for a mindless elbowing penalty.
How bad was it?
When Antoine Vermette was awarded a penalty shot with 12:37 left in the third, he couldn't even get a shot on net, the puck rolling helplessly off his stick as he tried to deke Anaheim netminder Jean-Sebastien Giguere. If Vermette had been successful, he would have brought the Senators to within two goals.
In the end, the Senators' best players did not have enough. Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza had a miserable finals series, prompting Murray to disband the team's most potent line from the first three rounds of the playoffs. Defenseman Wade Redden had a nightmarish finals and was off throughout much of the postseason. Emery allowed six goals on 18 shots in Game 5, when the team's desperate situation called for much, much more from its netminder.
"I think, positionally, they played better than we did," Murray said. "Defense in particular. That's their agenda, really, to be a real strong defensive team. But I still maintain a few guys we had some guys that didn't play to what they were playing in the playoffs, certainly in the latter part of the year. And I think that's most disappointing. And what we and they have to live with through the summer."
But does this imply these aren't good players? Or that they won't learn from this? No. In fact, it's possible this experience may some day provide the basis for a Stanley Cup victory.
It just doesn't feel like that right now.
"I've waited a long time to get a chance to be a coach in the finals, and I'm disappointed in all of us that we didn't get it done," said Murray, who is in his second year as coach in Ottawa. "As far as the team is concerned, as far as the way we played it, I thought I saw a lot of character on our team. We got here because of that as much as anything. I don't know if every case we were the most talented group, but we played hard and very disciplined throughout the Eastern playoffs.
"I'd like to make excuses for them, but there's none I can really make at the moment, other than congratulate Anaheim because they did what they had to do to win it."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com