The Flyers gathered for the last time on what would have been the day of Game 7, their bodies suddenly alive with bruises and cuts, their familiar faces suddenly strange without their prodigious playoff beards.

The reality of it all had set in as their whiskers washed down the drain. For more than eight weeks, they had played or practiced nearly every day, the pressure and injuries and exhaustion growing with each round.

"Waking up this morning was tough," Scott Hartnell said. "We would have been playing Game 7 in Chicago. I'm sure it's going to last a little while longer. I'll let you know next year if it still hurts."

They learned the hard way what it takes to win it all - going the distance without a Stanley Cup to show for their troubles - but is that good or bad? Does going through it all again, this time closing the deal, seem more doable after this? Or does knowing the height of the mountain and the weight of the boulder make the task seem all that much more daunting?

On Friday, on the day they would have awakened in Chicago with Game 7 to play, the Flyers had no way of answering those questions. They knew only that it hurt, not how long the pain would last. They knew only that they'd been through something bigger than themselves, not whether they'll ever get another chance.

"It is much easier to lose in the first round," Simon Gagne said.

Mike Richards, the captain, admitted that he was a shot hockey player. And no wonder: 82 regular-season games, six high-pressure games for Team Canada in the Olympics, followed by 23 games in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"It's the toughest thing I've ever gone through," Richards said. "To come away with nothing, it's disappointing. I can honestly say I really have nothing left in the tank. I'm mentally and physically exhausted. Waking up [Thursday], I had to peel myself out of bed just to move around. It's tough. The lesson there is just how hard it is."

Last week, defenseman Chris Pronger talked a bit about losing in the Finals with Edmonton in 2006.

"It was tough to get motivated again to get back on the ice," Pronger said.

That off-season, he was traded from Edmonton to Anaheim. The Ducks went on to win the Cup the following year, and Pronger played a huge part in that. Some teams use it as motivation to return and change the final outcome. Some teams never quite find the right combination of chemistry, health, luck, and timing.

"Hopefully, we're better for it," Richards said. "I think everyone realizes how hard it is and how much dedication it takes to win."

The immediate precedent is last year's Cup champion. The Pittsburgh Penguins lost in the Finals in 2008, then returned and won it all in 2009. But that doesn't mean they avoided the hangover. The Penguins got off to such an underwhelming start in 2008, they got their head coach fired.

The only certainty is that a different team will go to training camp this fall. There is always change in professional sports. General manager Paul Holmgren will have a series of tough choices to make, starting with his free-agent goaltender, Michael Leighton. His broader decision will be whether to just tweak on the assumption this is a contending team or make bigger changes.

The Blackhawks went to the conference finals last year, then added Marian Hossa as a big-money free agent.

One argument for as much continuity as possible: The team will have a full season, including training camp, playing Peter Laviolette's system. They already know the coach and his aggressive style will pay off, so it should be easy enough for everyone to buy in.

Then again, Laviolette should have a pretty good feel for which players are good fits for this team and which are not. So that could lead to some surprising roster decisions.

But all of that is in the future. On the day of Game 7, they were still feeling the physical and mental pain of the ordeal they'd just been through together. There is a bond among these players that will last just as long as if they'd gotten their names on the Cup.

Hartnell said a few guys got together Thursday night and swapped memories over a few beers.

"Good times, bad times," Hartnell said. "You talk about some funny plays, all that kind of stuff. It's weird. It's at the end and you lost, and we still have a lot of laughter and a lot of giggles. You never know who's going to be here and who isn't, so it's good to take this time and enjoy it."

The healing has already begun.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan
at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.