This time was going to be different. After four straight seasons of backing down at the moment of truth, after building what they thought would be enough depth to get through a playoff grind, after bringing Randy Carlyle back to coach them because they believed his calm and resourcefulness would guide them past their mental and emotional postseason hurdles, the ending was the same for the Ducks.
Maybe even more painful than in previous seasons, because they clawed and scratched and were on the brink of forcing a seventh game in the Western Conference finals before they let their last chance slip away.
They got a few steps further than they did a year ago. But if losing to the Nashville Predators in a six-game conference finals one year after the Predators had booted them out of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs meant the Ducks had accomplished something, that theory was contradicted by the tears welling in Ryan Kesler's eyes and the vacant stares of Andrew Cogliano and Corey Perry after their efforts to mount yet another remarkable rally fell short in a 6-3 loss Monday.
"Personally, I don't think the better team won tonight but it doesn't really matter what I think," said Kesler, who sat at his locker for long minutes with his head buried in a towel before he began to unlace his skates and unpeel the tape that held him and his equipment together. "They got the victory and they move on and we're going home."
The Predators are going to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their history. The Ducks are going home with sharp regrets.
"There's a lot of fight in this room and this one's going to sting for a while," Perry said. "You've got to give credit to them too. Their goalie played well. They're a structured team and they don't stray away from that and it works."
The Ducks ran out of comebacks in part because they didn't get championship-caliber goaltending from Jonathan Bernier, who was thrust into his first career playoff start after John Gibson told Carlyle following the morning skate that he couldn't play. Gibson suffered a hamstring injury in Game 5 but had been skating, which gave Carlyle some optimism that Gibson would play Monday.
"So we went along with the premise that he was going to be able to play based upon how he felt [Sunday]," Carlyle said, "but then when he took to the ice today he basically indicated to us he was not available."
Bernier had played a key role in the Ducks' late-season surge when he stood in for an injured Gibson, but he gave up two goals on the first three shots he faced. Yet, the Ducks weren't done. They erased two-goal deficits twice and were even at 3-3 and on the power play with a little more than eight minutes to play.
But then they squandered the power play — their fourth fruitless advantage — and were burned three seconds later when Colton Sissons — who couldn't crack Nashville's lineup as late as March — completed a hat trick when he converted a pass from Calle Jarnkrok at the 14-minute mark. The emotionally spent fans at Bridgestone Arena, who had been so loud and vibrant early in the game but had been silenced by the Ducks' rally, erupted in cheers again.
"It definitely hurts worse when you play that good and you come back and you know this team has shown resiliency all year and to give up a goal like that, it … sucks," Kesler said.
He's nearly 33 and might not have another good shot at the Cup.
The Ducks lineup had been depleted by injuries to productive forwards Rickard Rakell and Patrick Eaves and additionally weakened when winger Nick Ritchie took a foolish major boarding penalty and was ejected Monday.
Carlyle had found ways to compensate for that. He couldn't compensate for the lack of game-turning, momentum-generating saves from Bernier, who gave up four goals on the 16 shots he faced. "Well, I think that if you look at it, we scored three goals. We should win the hockey game. Simple as that," Carlyle said. "Playoff hockey. If you score three goals in a game, you should give yourself a pretty good chance for success."
The Predators began the playoffs seeded eighth, as were the eventual champion 2012 Kings. And, again like those Kings, they've mixed defense, excellent goaltending and a bit of magic into a triumphant formula. "They played hard and they played hard around our net and they dug in when they needed to," Getzlaf said. "Unfortunately we weren't able to elevate enough to get by them."
Or to write a more successful ending.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen