The crowning moment of this era of Boston Bruins hockey will always be the franchise’s return to glory in 2011 when the Black and Gold climbed the sport’s highest mountain and won their first Stanley Cup in nearly 40 years.

No one can take that Cup away from them, and it will be a defining hallmark in the careers of players like Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. But after losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final to the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night at TD Garden, it’s clear this era of Bruins hockey will in many ways also be defined by a series of “What ifs.”

What if the Bruins didn’t blow a 3-0 series lead and 3-0 lead in Game 7 to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010? What if the Bruins didn’t allow two goals in 17 seconds to the Chicago Blackhawks in the final moments of Game 6 in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final? What if the Bruins didn’t fall on their faces in Game 7 of their second-round series against the Montreal Canadiens in 2014? And, most painfully, what if the Bruins didn’t come up short in Game 7 on home ice in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final?

There’s no harder trophy to win than the Stanley Cup, but for a team with as much talent as this Bruins club has had at its core over the last decade, it’s hard not to think there could have been more. To lose the Stanley Cup twice on your home ice in the span of six years is the perfect summation of what could have been — what should have been.

“It just hurts. I know it’s going to hurt for a while,” Krejci said Wednesday night after the Bruins’ 4-1 loss. “I’ve been here before and haven’t got over it yet. I don’t think I’ll ever get over this one, either.”

A win on Wednesday would have put players like Chara, Bergeron and Krejci in rarified air. It also would solidify Brad Marchand’s status as an all-time Bruins great. Tuukka Rask, a shoo-in for the Conn Smythe trophy would have a Cup to call his own and could spend his summer flipping the haters the bird. Bruce Cassidy’s standing among the best coaches in franchise history would be unquestioned.

And it’s not like that veteran trio still won’t be heralded for its overall body of work, while Marchand and Rask are undoubtedly very good players in B’s history. Cassidy has a bright future behind benches and will have plenty more chances to get his name on the damn Cup. None of this is meant to diminish what they’ve all done to this point in their careers.

But it could have been more — so much more.

The loss is made even more complicated by how those key stakeholders played in Game 7. Bergeron looked good early but fell off from there, an unsightly end to a mostly disappointing playoff performance. He played hurt, of course, which is seemingly becoming a rite of spring for Bergeron, another element to consider when pondering what could have been for him and his team. Krejci, who led the NHL in playoff points on their two previous runs to the Stanley Cup Final, had just two points against St. Louis (one of which came in the very definition of garbage time Wednesday night). Like Bergeron, it’s possible Marchand dealt with an injury that might excuse a relative lack of production but doesn’t do much to explain the head-scratching decision making like his ill-timed line change in the first period of Game 7. And no, it’s not Rask’s fault the Bruins lost Game 7, but it sure would have been nice to have that save with 7.9 seconds left in the first that, for all intents and purposes, iced the game.

Typically, you can look at these sorts of things and say there’s always next year, but these Bruins are running out of next years. That core is still locked in for next season, but they’re getting old. Chara is 42. Bergeron turns 34 next month. Krjeci and Rask are 32, while Marchand is the pup of the group at 31. And they all have a whole lot of tread on their tires at this point. There’s no more grueling test in professional team sports than a deep Stanley Cup playoffs run, and returning the Cup Final is no guarantee for a young, talented team in its prime, let alone a club with an aging core whose best hockey might be behind them.

And it stings even more when you realize how just well things fell for the Bruins this year. The Tampa Bay Lightning was one of the best regular-season teams in hockey history and they choked in the first round. The defending Stanley Cup champions and Boston’s boogeyman, the Washington Capitals, were eliminated in the second round. To reach the Final, the Bruins had to go through a mightily overmatched Carolina Hurricanes team that they diced up in four games. It won’t be that easy next year, especially with the Lightning rested and looking for payback paired with the very real possibility the Toronto Maple Leafs continue to improve.. Making the playoffs out of the Atlantic Division is really no guarantee, let alone returning to the Stanley Cup Final.

There’s no denying the Bruins’ success over the last decade and a half. They have restored the Original Six franchise to its rightful standing among the NHL’s elite. TD Garden has been sold out for years, and the fan interest doesn’t show any signs of slowing. Few teams have won more games and been more consistent in the regular season. Most teams would kill for three Stanley Cup Final appearances in eight years. Every player in the NHL would kill for just one chance to raise the Stanley Cup.

But for as good as it feels to dwell on those positives, it’s the bitterness that comes with these sorts of setbacks that likely will gnaw at this core for a long time.

Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images