Jonathan Quick held tight to the dream until almost the very end, no matter that the Kings knew they'd have to beat the Flames on Thursday and get help from other teams to squeeze into the playoffs and continue their quest for a second straight Stanley Cup championship.
There was a chance, slim though it was. He would not give up. They would not give up.
"We had expectation of winning the Cup again. That was our expectation this morning. All game long," the laconic goaltender said. "Until they scored that empty-netter that was our expectation — we were going to get in and we were going to win again. So it's just disappointment, that's the feeling."
The empty-net goal was scored by Calgary's Jiri Hudler with 50 seconds left in the third period, sealing a 3-1 victory that ensured the NHL will have a new champion this season.
It also made official what had long been apparent: the Kings, though still capable of occasional brilliance and of physically punishing opponents, lacked enough depth and consistency in enough areas to leave them on the outside in a conference that will welcome spirited, eager teams from Calgary and Winnipeg to the postseason party after long absences.
"First and foremost we have to look inward," team captain Dustin Brown said. "There's areas of our game where we were not good enough all year.
"I think it's just about ourselves in a lot of situations. That's part of the process here, taking a look at yourself and evaluating yourself. We know what our team's all about. And we know this is not good enough for our group. Regardless of what other teams are doing, we should be there every year."
Not since the Detroit Red Wings won in 1997 and again in 1998 has the NHL had a repeat Cup winner. It's that difficult.
During the Kings' remarkable run of two Cup titles in three years — two more than their fans ever expected to see — and a run to the West final in between, they played 64 playoff games and sent a sizable delegation to the Sochi Olympics.
"A ton of hockey really," said defenseman Drew Doughty, who's averaging a Herculean 29 minutes and one second's ice time, two seconds off the league lead.
Doughty said the workload isn't a valid excuse for their downfall but it is a reality. So was their lack of scoring: they rank 20th with 216 goals and none of the teams behind them currently holds a playoff spot. No player had a career year; Jeff Carter was their most consistent forward but Brown, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams endured long slumps. Tyler Toffoli hasn't scored an even-strength goal in 24 games.
Look, too, at the disparity between their home record, 24-9-7 entering Saturday's now-meaningless finale against San Jose, and their 15-18-8 road record. Coach Darryl Sutter cited the home-road disparity as a reason for their struggles, but he wasn't about to criticize anyone Thursday, when everyone's emotions were raw.
"We played hard. I got no complaints about anything to do with our team," Sutter said. "Give the Calgary Flames lots of credit. Now, I get to pull for them."
Altogether, it added up to the Kings silently filing off the ice at the Scotiabank Saddledome while the Flames mobbed their goalie, Jonas Hiller, and fans roared in appreciation of what had happened and in anticipation of what's to come. For the Kings, that anticipation is gone, with their chance to hoist the Cup this spring. "We defended it for 81 games," Quick said.
Again, not enough.
The sticking point is that if they had gotten in and gotten a good matchup — say, against the Vancouver Canucks — they might have had another long run. "That's the thing," Williams said. "You have a team that we know we could have done it all this year, but we didn't do enough to try and keep our Stanley Cup."