SO MUCH was asked.

Maybe there was nothing left to give.

Center and captain Mike Richards and veteran defenseman Chris Pronger, and the men who share their ice time, carried the Flyers through much of the regular season and, after it, to the Stanley Cup final.

Then, they faded. Richards was invisible all series; Pronger, after he dominated the first four games, was less effective the past two games.

The last two games.

The Flyers last night lost Game 6 of the finals, 4-3, in overtime, and, with it, the series.

Pronger and Matt Carle routinely deal with the other team's best line. They did it so well against Chicago that, four games into the series, things were tied and Joel Quenneville had to separate wingers Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien from center, captain and Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Toews.

Divided, the Blackhawks conquered.

They scored 11 goals the past two games, both wins. Pronger was on the ice for five of the full-strength goals in Game 5. He was in the penalty box for another goal in Game 5, and for the first one last night.

He took two penalties last night in the first period. On the second one, late in the period, the Blackhawks scored, Byfuglien, at 257 pounds, camped in front of the net, where Pronger had hit and hacked him for the past five games. With Pronger in the box, Braydon Coburn was no match; he never made contact with Big Buff, who made it 1-0.

As for Carle, who gets less credit than he deserves as Pronger's other half, last night was not the night to falter.

But it was Carle who was out of position on a point pass early in the second period that cost the Flyers a possession. And it was Carle's giveaway midway through the second that led to Andrew Ladd's goal that made it 3-2.

Richards, the hero of the first three rounds, the heart who willed them back from a three-games-to-none deficit in the second round against Boston . . . he just looked spent, especially against the wickedly quick Blackhawks defenders.

After four rounds of dealing with the other team's best defensive offering, Richards' line was dismantled in the second period last night. Third-line center Claude Giroux, at his silky best last night, first replaced Jeff Carter, and then Simon Gagne. Carter saw time with James van Riemsdyk and Darrell Powe.

None of that worked, really.

"We said before the game, if we couldn't find that offensive punch, we'd put Jeff back in the middle, keep Ritchie in the middle," said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette.

When it was over, the Richards/Carter/Gagne trio combined for six points in six games.

Speed killed.

Laviolette wouldn't criticize his captain; rather, he praised the Hawks: "Defensively, they were fast. They're as fast a team defensively as they are offensively. They transition quickly both ways."

It is a defense that, playing in the shadow of a terrifying offense, was, as a whole, underappreciated, Gagne insisted. Duncan Keith, a Norris Trophy finalist, took on the task at first . . . until the best line clearly turned out to be Danny Briere's.

"You're going to face the best of the best," Gagne explained. "Their checking line and their defensemen did a good job against the best players in the league. It was hard. They did a great job against our line."

Richards hadn't been the same since his mid-ice dive led to a shorthanded goal in the decisive Game 5 against Montreal, the win that sent the Flyers to their first final since 1997.

He had a goal and an assist this round. He was a minus-7 for the series.

Gagne (minus-8) and Carter (minus-6) played on bum wheels that cost them playoff time, so Richards wasn't exactly fortified with the best weapons, but both are snipers, and neither produced.

Richards finished a turbulent year - he saw a coach get fired, his leadership was questioned, his team needed a penalty shot to make the postseason - with 23 playoff points. He finished with the respect of a city, with a higher profile in the league, with a dressing room and a coach devoted to him.

But with no ring.