Except for Gary Bettman, nobody handed the Stanley Cup to the Blackhawks. To the immense credit of the Flyers, Chicago's first championship in 49 years was hard-earned.

In time, the Flyers will take solace in the quality of their effort, their tenacity, their persistence despite grim injuries and daunting deficits. They will be able to look back on this series with pride.

In the moment, though, as Jonathan Toews lifted the Stanley Cup in celebration, the pain and disappointment were in direct proportion to the heart and soul invested in the Flyers' attempt to win their own franchise's first title in 35 years. To have it end so suddenly, so brutally in overtime made the sting that much sharper.

"We just thought it was meant to be," said Danny Briere, stitches still forming a crescent under his right eye. "We just thought we were going to find a way once again. In a few days, we all might be able to appreciate a little more the run we were on, the things we made happen. Now it just hurts."

As these things usually go, the cracks and crevices that develop throughout the playoffs are what finally give out and bring dreams crumbling down.

Goaltender Michael Leighton, who played such a remarkable role in getting the Flyers this far, failed again to secure the near post. Patrick Kane, who was trapped in a terrible scoring funk for the first half of the series, sped in from Leighton's right and fired an impossible shot right through the improbable goaltender.

The Flyers didn't even realize their dream was over. The puck stuck in the back of the net and there was a long pause as reality sunk in.

"I thought we were going on for a face off," Briere said. "All of a sudden I see a few guys jumping on the ice. I was confused. I thought, you can't win the Stanley Cup like that, not even knowing. It doesn't change how much it hurts."

"It was kind of weird," Ville Leino said. "In a couple days, it will hurt. But it was just weird."

Leighton wasn't confused. He knew he didn't get his stick down, knew the puck had slid through his legs. And when he turned his head, there it was.

"I knew," Leighton said. "Obviously, it's pretty tough to swallow. It's hard the way it ended. That's what they say. It's usually not a great goal. It's usually a fluky, stupid-type goal, and that's what happened."

Just like that, it was over. The Flyers' wild ride from claiming the final playoff berth to the threshold of a title was finished.

They gave the Blackhawks all they could handle, twice erasing leads in this elimination game. By late in the third period, the Stanley Cup was out of its case, resting on the black-clothed cart that would carry it out to the ice on a red carpet.

The Flyers, their supply of grit running down with each tick of the clock, got one more chance to extend the series. Leino, completing his own journey from healthy scratch to hero, ricocheted a pass across the slot in the general direction of Scott Hartnell. Hartnell shot as he was knocked flat on his back. The roar of the crowd washed over him.

Overtime. It came down to sudden death or new life.

"We just felt like this was the way it was supposed to go," Briere said.

But Kane blew past defenseman Kimmo Timonen and tore the final pages from the Flyers' storybook.

"The story ended the wrong way for us," Hartnell said. "It hurts. It stings. It's every bad adjective. It's sad. You feel mad. We played well enough to be here. We deserved to be here. Obviously, they deserved to win that Cup."

The shame of it is, Leighton was the only reason the Flyers were in the game after two periods. The Blackhawks hit the ice with fearsome intensity. For all their talk about delivering their best game of the season, the Flyers were overrun, trapped in their own zone, reliant on their twice-benched goaltender to withstand the onslaught. Leighton did just that.

In a series of wild momentum swings and furious comebacks, of one-goal games and two overtimes, the Flyers more than proved their merit. They had snuck into the playoffs, but they belonged there. They cruised past New Jersey and Montreal, with that astonishing comeback from 0-3 against Boston in between.

All along, it was clear the Flyers were going to have to overcome the skilled Blackhawks with heart and effort. But the 'Hawks showed their own heart wasn't lacking in this series.

They earned this championship, make no mistake.

The Flyers, to their credit and their pain, made sure of that.

"I know I'm going to remember this group of guys for a long time," Briere said.

He is not alone.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844