-- ST. LOUIS -- The three Chicago Blackhawks most responsible for one of the best runs of playoff hockey in the salary-cap era were the three who stayed behind.
They were the three who stuck around to answer the questions they're not used to be hearing this time of year. In the visiting dressing room, sitting to the left, a quiet Patrick Kane summed up a feeling many Blackhawks players and fans were having at that moment.
"It just doesn't really feel right," Kane said after the St. Louis Blues' 3-2 Game 7 win over the reigning champions.
Kane was a factor in this game, even if he didn't get to score. In what might have been the most exciting, back-and-forth period of hockey in this postseason, Kane spent parts of the second period skating circles around Blues goalie Brian Elliott, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Ultimately, it never came. He went down without a goal in this game, and scored just a single goal all series following a regular season that was the best of his career.
He scored 46 goals during the regular season. He led the NHL with 106 points. He's going to win the Hart Trophy.
In this moment, in any moment, he'd package it all up in exchange for the opportunity to do what the Blues will be doing later this week -- playing the Dallas Stars, keeping their Stanley Cup dreams alive.
"Absolutely," Kane said. "Nothing like winning a Cup and going far in [the] playoffs and being part of a championship team. Absolutely, you'd trade it all in."
Directly across from Kane, Jonathan Toews tried to put it into words. It was so fresh. It was such an unfamiliar position for this captain. Done in the first round. Done in April.
From the very start of the season, Toews felt like this group could be another special one. When they pushed back like a champion when the Blues opened up a 3-1 series lead to force Game 7, it only re-enforced the inclination.
So when it was ripped away, by an old friend and teammate Troy Brouwer, who banged home his own rebound to break a 2-2 tie in the third period, Toews just wasn't sure how to process it all.
In seven games, Toews didn't score a goal. He had five assists and got his chances but the season ended before he could ever make his postseason breakthrough.
This is a guy who had 10 goals in the playoffs last year. He has a Conn Smythe Trophy.
Now, he's trying to put into words why his season is over.
"There's always second-guessing and thinking what you could've done differently," Toews said quietly. "It's kind of tough to think of what you could've done differently in those situations to alter the result."
Toews and Kane drew the biggest crowd of cameras and microphones in the Blackhawks' dressing room, as they tend to do as the stars of this dynasty.
But a few feet away stood defenseman Duncan Keith, who has been every bit the engine of this great Blackhawks run as the two stars.
He drew a small crowd and spoke even quieter.
"We all wanted to keep it going," Keith said.
Keith played 33 minutes, 34 seconds in this one, leading everyone in ice time as he always does. Nobody puts more into the Blackhawks' success than Keith.
Nobody wanted to keep playing more than him.
"The last three years, we've had a lot of success in the playoffs. I think it's fun," Keith said. "This is what we play for, these type of games and these series and playing late in the year. It's fun having short summers."
Now, they've got a long one coming.
But as they settle into the summer and these Stanley Cup playoffs roll on without them, their presence will be felt. As long as the Blues keep winning, there will be a piece of the Blackhawks surviving because it was this group of players that taught the Blues what it takes to win in the spring. You could probably say the same for the Anaheim Ducks, who lost to the Blackhawks last year in the Western Conference finals and now are fighting for a return to that stage.
It was the Blackhawks who showed these teams how to be a champion.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock had just survived one of the biggest games in this franchise's recent history and his first thought during the postgame media conference was to pay respect to the Blackhawks.
"It was really eye-opening what a championship team can do, like them. They dial it up," Hitchcock said. "You find yourself on the bench just in awe of some of the things they do. We had to find a way to battle through it. We knew there was going to be a push and it came. It came hard. But you played a series like this, you see why that team has won three Cups. Boy."
The pushback always came with these Blackhawks. They never gave in, even as the Blues kept throwing their best punch. Even in this elimination game, Brent Seabrook's shot late in the third period rattled off both posts. The red light flashed on momentarily. It looked like another Blackhawks comeback.
To beat this team, the Blues needed a break to go their way. They, no doubt, earned it.
A few minutes later, the final buzzer sounded. The celebration in St. Louis began and the Blues now had first-hand knowledge of what it takes to beat a champion.
"[You learn] just how deep you have to go emotionally. You've got to go so deep, to where it's so uncomfortable," Hitchcock said. "There's a reason teams win, and it's not skill ... it's this inner confidence that you have where you think you can make the other team crack."
The Blues, to their ultimate credit, never cracked. The Blackhawks never did either. They were just beat, beat by a better team. Their incredible run is over.
"They're a good hockey team," Kane said with a nod to the Blues. "No matter who we were playing, we thought we had a good chance to win. It's just a disappointing, weird feeling right now."