"I thought we'd be going back for a Game 7," Kings Coach Terry Murray said, his tone wistful.
The Kings almost took this to the limit. They played valiantly for two periods but sputtered in the third, coming undone after Mikael Samuelsson's stick shattered on a shot and the puck fluttered onto the stick of Daniel Sedin for the go-ahead goal.
The crowd at Staples Center had yelled itself hoarse and waved rally towels until the arena seemed engulfed by thousands of small blizzards, but the Canucks were deaf to the fans' pleas. Sedin's goal with 2:03 to play was supported by an empty-net goal with 67 seconds left, completing a season in which the Kings made so many gains, including their first playoff berth since 2002, but fell short of their ultimate goal.
Another year has gone by for the Kings without a Stanley Cup championship. But this team made enough progress this season for them to eventually realize that although their season ended their dreams didn't.
"It's a tough series to swallow. We learned a lot," veteran winger Ryan Smyth said. "I think we had our chances throughout the series to win. They battled hard coming back from behind in Game 4 and Game 6 here. . . .
"We had our chances but we also gave some key momentum to them throughout the series and that's a tough thing to do. That's a good lesson for us all. Some of the guys are in their first year. We learned a lot as a group and you never know what can happen."
For Drew Doughty, who made the biggest gains of anyone — he won an Olympic gold medal with Team Canada, is a finalist for the Norris Trophy and was universally recognized as a budding superstar — the end was deflating. But he pierced the gloom enveloping the Kings' locker room with rays of hope.
"I'm thinking about the positives. The Kings haven't made the playoffs for however many years it's been and to finally do that is a big feat for us," he said.
"We've got to continue to grow. A lot of guys didn't have playoff experience and now that they do I think next year we should be a lot more of a threat in the playoffs."
They expected to go deeper this spring and their start Sunday promised they would. Alexander Frolov's wraparound at 10:08 of the first period gave them a 1-0 lead, which the Canucks matched on a power play at 8:38 of the second period when Steve Bernier tipped a shot by Alexander Edler past Jonathan Quick.
The Kings regained the lead with another, rare five-on-five goal, with Doughty blasting a shot past Roberto Luongo to the short side, but the Canucks pulled even at 1:57 of the second on a goal by Kevin Bieksa that sneaked through Quick's pads.
Sedin — who combined with twin brother Henrik to score 18 points in the series — then scored from the lower edge of the left circle after Samuelsson's stick broke. The Kings pulled Quick with less than 90 seconds left and Alexandre Burrows scored into the empty net, momentarily silencing a crowd that later offered loud roars to salute a fine season.
The Canucks saluted the Kings too. "They've got a great team," Henrik Sedin said. "If they can stay together, they're going to be an unbelievable team for a lot of years."
That prediction has a better chance of coming true if they get better goaltending, or at least the consistency Quick displayed before his late-season fade. Smyth made a point of consoling Quick after the game.
"I thought he had an excellent year. He's the one reason we're here in the playoffs. And I just wanted to tell him that and that he's a big difference," Smyth said.
His play is also one of the reasons they're done, though depth up the middle and a lack of speed on defense were keys too.
Those thoughts are for General Manager Dean Lombardi to ponder in the coming months. On Sunday players couldn't help but ponder what might have been.
"I think a lot of the things we're going to learn from the series we don't even know right now," Quick said.
They know this much: They expect to be back for years to come.