Mats Sundin could not shake the memory.
It haunted him as he battled the heat on a sun-baked fairway of a Dubai golf course.
It weighed on his mind as he inhaled the stench of tire rubber in the pits of the Spanish Grand Prix.
No matter where the globe-trotting Maple Leafs captain found himself during the lockout, he just couldn't forget how his team was eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2004 playoffs.
If only his Leafs had wriggled themselves into a better playoff seeding, he thought to himself, just maybe the road to the Stanley Cup would have been a bit easier.
"It was hard to accept," Sundin said yesterday. "I thought we had a team that could take the next step. I thought we had a championship-calibre team.
"What sticks out in my mind is where we finished. It's tough to play Ottawa in the first round and Philly in the second, whereas Tampa Bay (the eventual Cup winner) had weaker opponents through the first two rounds.
"We lost a couple of tough home games down the stretch -- one, I remember, to Pittsburgh. We didn't finish that far behind Tampa. If only ..."
Sundin stopped himself. That was then. This is now.
And if he has any say in the matter, the Leafs won't make that mistake again.
In the end, the captain feels a lesson has been learned. Just making the playoffs isn't good enough. Finishing as high as possible and getting a better draw to start the post-season should be the goal the 2005-06 Leafs are aiming for.
With Eric Lindros, Jason Allison and Jeff O'Neill on board, Sundin feels the Leafs have the guns to get the job done.
For the most part, Sundin remained relatively quiet -- at least publicly -- during the lockout, causing some observers to speculate that he was anti-union. It is a claim he vehemently denied yesterday.
"I think we were all frustrated by the (work stoppage), but I don't think my silence had anything to do with that," he said.
"I always stood behind the players' association.
"At the same time, there were rumours that a deal was done, then it wasn't ... I think that was devastating for all of us. Missing a year not only hurt the young guys but also the veterans who only have a certain amount of time left in their careers."
While restricted free agent Alexei Ponikarovsky remains unsigned, general manager John Ferguson said the young winger remains in the Leafs' plans for 2005-06.
"Nothing is done at this point," Ferguson said. "But we are anticipating he will be part of our club."