The finality does not come until the next morning, when a player wakes up and realizes there is no practice to go to, no game to prepare for.
For the Capitals, that painful moment arrived Sunday, less than 24 hours after their season came to an end with a Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
"You love playing hockey. You love coming to the rink. It's what you do for a living," forward Troy Brouwer said in the aftermath of that 2-1 defeat. "You can tell that any guy in this league would not rather be doing anything else. And the day that you stop playing hockey for the summer is one of the worst days of the year."
As Brouwer said those words, star winger Alex Ovechkin sat alone at his locker stall, the wave of reporters come and gone, unwilling to peel the jersey off his chest and the skates from his feet for the last time. Rookie goalie Braden Holtby -- a breakout star in these Stanley Cup playoffs -- defenseman Karl Alzner and veteran forward Mike Knuble all took their turns with the media, trying to explain the thin thread that separated the Rangers and Caps over seven games.
"They were 1 percent better than us [Saturday]," Knuble said. "A couple key moments in the series, you go back to Game 5, the last 30 seconds of that. That Game 5 was just a huge moment and a huge swing of things. We were able to battle back."
That will be the scar that lingers all summer. Washington led Game 5 on the road in the third period May 7 only to have Rangers center Brad Richards poke home the tying goal with 6.6 seconds left. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist was on the bench with the net empty, and Caps forward Joel Ward was in the penalty box for a four-minute high-sticking penalty. Still on the power play, New York quickly won that game in overtime.
As the No. 7 seed, Washington's players could have embraced their upset of No. 2 Boston in the first round and the fact that they pushed the Eastern Conference's best club to a Game 7 in the second round. But for a team that last summer thought it had put together a Stanley Cup-winning roster, there was little solace in a nice playoff run. In the end, the Caps got no further than last spring, when they were swept out of the postseason by Tampa Bay in the second round. They had higher aspirations than this.
"Those expectations and being underdogs is what everybody else thought of us and not at all what we thought of us," Alzner said. "It's by far the most frustrating loss ever that I've had to face. Nothing against the Rangers, they're a good team, but we never should have lost that series."