|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2009||[Print without images]|
DETROIT -- The hallway door leading to the ice surface from the Red Wings' dressing room was closed, but the noise still filtered in, loud and clear.
For once, the hooting and hollering on the ice was not the familiar voices of the Red Wings.
"It sucks," said four-time Stanley Cup champion Kirk Maltby. "Obviously, we've been at the other end a lot. To be on this end of it, to come this far and not be able to finish it off, especially here at home ... we just ran out of time. And that's all I can say."
The juggernaut Detroit Red Wings, winners of four Stanley Cups in 11 seasons, somehow blew a 2-0 series lead to the never-say-die Pittsburgh Penguins.
"You win four out of five games in the Cup finals, you deserve it," Wings GM Ken Holland, classy to the end, told ESPN.com. "They're the champs. I'm proud of our guys, but we ran out of gas."
This was the first back-to-back Stanley Cup finals since the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers danced in 1983 and 1984, and it's hard not to draw a parallel to the end result. The veteran Islanders won the first meeting, while the young Oilers came back and prevailed a year later.
In both cases, separated by 25 years, you're talking about great teams playing each other. This wasn't about the Red Wings losing the finals; it was about the Penguins winning it.
"They didn't get here by accident," Maltby said. "They're a great team."
In 1984, it was the passing of the torch, from one fading dynasty to an emerging one. That's where the story may diverge in this case. The salary-cap era makes it difficult to maintain a dynasty. By the same token, while the Islanders never returned to glory, one can't imagine these Wings would fall too far down their perch in the Western Conference, if at all.
Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson all will be back next season, and all but Lidstrom for several years to come.
Zetterberg, who again put on quite a show in a mano a mano duel with Sidney Crosby, was certainly not talking like a man who believed his team was passing the torch to the visiting team.
"I'd rather be out there [on the ice]," Zetterberg, his face freshly shaved of its playoff beard, said in a subdued voice. "But we'll learn from this, too. It's going to make us stronger. We have a great group of guys in here."
They'll have their previous Cup rings to soothe the pain, but you have to think these Red Wings will sit back over a cold one this summer and wonder just how they lost this thing. Or how close they came to winning it. A shot by Kronwall that hit the crossbar late in the third period of Game 7. A post by Mikael Samuelsson that would have been the dagger in Game 3 and given the Wings a 3-0 lead.
A bounce here, a bounce there ...
"That could have been the difference, absolutely," said Wings blueliner Brian Rafalski. "We can hold our heads high. We had a great season. We fell just short in the end."
Last season, the Cup finals ended with the Penguins coming oh so close to tying it in Game 6, the puck rolling across the crease at the buzzer. One year later, Lidstrom was robbed by Marc-Andre Fleury at the buzzer in Game 7.
"It's hard, you know," Lidstrom said. "You're so close to a Stanley Cup. You're fighting hard the whole season to put yourself in that situation, so it's hard losing the way we did tonight."
Despite injuries to key players such as Rafalski, Datsyuk, Lidstrom and Kris Draper, the Wings reached the Cup finals and looked in great shape after posting 2-0 and 3-2 series leads. But, in the end, they never found that consistent level of play that won them the 2008 Cup. It was there only in spurts.
"We've basically been taped together all playoffs," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who tried everything in his book of tricks to plug the holes. "Our guys did a good job to battle through and do the best they could. We weren't in some situations as good as we normally are. But I think when guys are giving you everything they've got, that's all you can ask from them."
Babcock nearly drove himself crazy this season trying to motivate a team that didn't hit its stride until late in the season. Motivation won't be an issue next season. The Wings will be as hungry as ever to get back to the Cup finals and finish the job.
After all, next season could potentially be the last for the 39-year-old Lidstrom, whose deal expires at the end of the season.
That might just be motivation enough.Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.