|ESPN.com: NHL Preview 2009||[Print without images]|
STOCKHOLM -- We in the media often cite the razor-thin margin between winning and losing in the NHL.
|The Red Wings lost Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup finals to the Penguins on home ice.|
And often it is that close.
What was it that separated Nicklas Lidstrom from snapping home the tying goal late in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals and Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury improbably hurling his torso in the path of that shot? A millisecond?
But here's the thing: As close as that margin between euphoria and agony is, the moment the game is over, what exists between winning and losing becomes nuclear, developing a half-life that continues to burn long after the fact.
It's been almost four months since that dramatic June night at Joe Louis Arena when the Penguins held on to defeat the Detroit Red Wings and steal the Stanley Cup from the defending champions.
The Red Wings are in Stockholm preparing for the NHL's third annual European Premiere Games, where they'll play back-to-back regular-season games against the St. Louis Blues on Friday and Saturday.
But even as that time has passed, the specter of that loss remains close at hand, a companion of sorts. That will continue to be the case until, well, the Wings once again hold the trophy in their hands.
"You get a different burn inside," Red Wings forward Dan Cleary said Monday shortly after the Wings' first on-ice workout in Stockholm. "Knowing that somebody else has it [the Cup] eats away at you."
The first Newfoundland-born player to win a Stanley Cup, Cleary scored the winner in Game 5 of the finals for the Wings. It would turn out to be the team's final win of the season. That final game frequently invades Cleary's thoughts.
Driving, get up to use the bathroom, watching TV, see a hockey commercial. For me, I don't know how other people deal with it, but I don't know if I'll ever get over it.” -- Dan Cleary on losing in Game 7 of the 2009 Cup finals
"All the time," he said. "Driving, get up to use the bathroom, watching TV, see a hockey commercial. For me, I don't know how other people deal with it, but I don't know if I'll ever get over it. I don't know. You never know if you're going to get back there again. And to be able to go two years in a row was special.
"All due respect to Pittsburgh, and I believe they deserved to win because they beat us four out of five, but I can't stand Pittsburgh. I was so happy we won Sunday," Cleary added, referring to a preseason victory over Pittsburgh on Sunday shortly before the team jetted across the Atlantic. "I'll always be like that 'til we get there again. I'm just being honest."
Netminder Chris Osgood recalls the stark contrast after Game 7 in June compared with when the Wings celebrated their own Cup win on the Penguins' home ice in 2008.
"You realize that it was a lot different right after the game when there was nobody in our room talking to us," he said. "It was almost like we were forgotten the minute we lost that game."
The veteran netminder has won 31 postseason games over the past two seasons. It is an incredible achievement. Yet, he said, the more time that has passed since Game 7, the more annoyed he has become.
"At first, when you lose that game, you're still pretty proud of the way you played because it was tough getting that far, and we battled through a lot and played some pretty hard series," said Osgood, who turned in a sparkling .926 save percentage and 2.01 goals-against average in 23 postseason games. "But then, as the summer goes along, you get a little frustrated thinking about how close you were.
"You realize, 'I was only 40 minutes away; I wasn't very far from winning.' Then you always think back, 'This play or that play could have changed and we would have won again.'"
In the end, though, it wasn't quite good enough.
"I mean, you can say it breaks your heart, yeah, it does because you were that close," Osgood said.
The sharpness of that disappointment has brought renewed focus to the Wings' training camp -- more determination to retake what they believe is rightfully theirs. At least that's the theory.
"I think we have a little bit more focus because we didn't win it last year," defenseman Brad Stuart said. "Nobody was celebrating this summer."
Detroit coach Mike Babcock got a chance to speak with his counterpart in Pittsburgh, Dan Bylsma, before the teams' preseason game Sunday. Babcock congratulated his former player (Bylsma played for Babcock in Anaheim), and they talked about just how different the offseason is when you win.
Sometimes, though, when you've won as much as the Red Wings have, losing is much starker than for teams for which the bar isn't set quite so high. Babcock recalls the season after his Ducks -- and Bylsma's -- lost to New Jersey in the 2003 Stanley Cup finals. The Ducks hung a banner celebrating their Western Conference title to kick off the 2003-04 season.
"I don't imagine they're going to do anything [like that] in Detroit, but the fact is, you won the West," Babcock said.
Does he think about that final night? Sure.
"Would I like to go back and shoot it in the net more? Yeah," he said.
But Babcock also remembers parts of the 2008 finals series when the Penguins couldn't capitalize on a crucial five-on-three and Henrik Zetterberg made a great play to thwart a Sidney Crosby chance. The Wings went up 3-1 in that series instead of having the Penguins tie it at 2.
"Did I want to lose Game 7? No," Babcock said. "Is it better than not being in it? One hundred percent better. Take it every time. If we can go to the Stanley Cup final every year, I'll be a pretty happy guy."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.