- Craig Custance
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DETROIT -- The way Henrik Zetterberg described his first game back from back surgery, he could have been speaking about the play of his entire team.
He felt good in the first period, even halfway through the second. Then, as the game went on, the shifts got shorter. Things got harder.
For him, it was the fatigue of sitting out months and then joining an intense Stanley Cup postseason in progress that kicked in. For the rest of the Red Wings, it was the Bruins who kicked in.
Boston's never-ending commitment to defense and dogged systematic approach erased a surging start for the Red Wings, along with an early two-goal lead.
By the time a deflected puck got past emergency starting goalie Jonas Gustavsson in overtime, a goal credited to Jarome Iginla, it almost seemed a foregone conclusion. Boston was the better team in the third. Boston was the better team in overtime. A Bruins win was where this game was headed and that's what they got. The final 3-2, the series lead now 3-1 and Detroit's season slowly conceding itself to Boston's relentless pursuit.
There wasn't any panic in Boston's game when Detroit came out flying; they instead just doubled down on what has got them this far.
"Give them credit, they're a really, really good team," said Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall. "I thought in the first two periods we did a lot of good things, kept going after it, kept throwing pucks in there, got some goals. In the third, for whatever reason we came off our game a bit, started chasing a bit. Give them credit, they're a good team."
For the Red Wings, there were so many storylines that set this one up to potentially be one to remember. Zetterberg was back in the lineup for the first time since aggravating his back at the Winter Olympics.
His presence in the lineup energized a Joe Louis Arena crowd and his team clearly fed off the return of their captain. They came out flying in the first, with 15 shots to Boston's five. Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk made passes that indicated their years of developing chemistry together had quickly returned.
In all, Zetterberg played 19:34 in this game, with each second a bit of a diminishing return for someone still working back into game shape.
To expect that initial jump to last was expecting too much.
"We knew that would probably be the case," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "I thought that line had a good jump early. I thought our power play was really dangerous. As the game went on, I didn't think they were dangerous anymore. To me, I didn't know if we had a lot of good players, especially our young players."
The biggest stunner wasn't Zetterberg returning from injury early, but Jimmy Howard not playing at all. Howard was out with the flu, a decision that was so last-second Babcock turned in an incorrect starting lineup. Gustavsson got the nod during warmups and, all things considered, did well in making 37 saves in his postseason debut.
"Monster was awesome for us," Kronwall said. "He came up huge for us at times. Gave us a chance."
Then there was Kronwall. He rushed to be with his girlfriend for the birth of their son at 11:31 a.m. on gameday. Then made it back and was a key part of Detroit's initial surge, scoring the game's first goal and setting up Datsyuk for the second, grabbing a puck out of the air, settling on to the ice before finding his teammate.
The only thing missing was a win.
"It was a big day for me, a big day for me and my girl. It's something I'll never forget for sure," Kronwall said. "Got there just in time to be there and then just holding your son for the first time -- it's a pretty special feeling."
Each on their own would have been an incredible story, had the Red Wings held on. Now, they're stories threatened to footnote status after Torey Krug, Milan Lucic and Iginla scored unanswered goals, tilting the game and now the series very much in Boston's favor.
Even with Detroit's lopsided start, the Bruins ended up controlling 55 percent of the even strength shot attempts by the time the game ended.
Now, they're up 3-1 in the first round for the second consecutive year, and the Red Wings don't even have the hope that Boston might take it for granted. Not after the Bruins nearly blew a similar lead last year to the Maple Leafs.
The notion of not repeating the near-disastrous opening round of 2013 was a topic of conversation with this game completed only minutes. They have no intentions of a repeat.
"We can talk about it all we want, but it's going to show in our play," Lucic said. "We've learned a lot of hard lessons in the past, like Toronto, and fortunately we were able to get out of that one and move on. Last year, we had Chicago down 2-1 and we probably didn't play our best Game 4 and lost that in overtime and weren't able to recover after that."
The lesson Lucic and the Bruins now know well? "You don't want to do anything to give the other team life in a series," he said.
The Red Wings were poised to write a memorable story with the return of Henrik Zetterberg, but the Bruins were too good to let that happen, writes ESPN The Magazine's Craig Custance.