The Red Wings' feeling of so close, yet so far away is unusual in recent years. But it happens with some regularity in this season of development.
They fell Sunday to the Blackhawks, 2-1 in a shootout, with victory easily within grasp.
That is a second consecutive loss by one goal to the record-setting, best team in the NHL. The Wings clung to 1-0 leads for long stretches in both games, Sunday and Jan. 27, without scoring a second one, while suffering just enough misfortune to lose. Their margin for error is more slender this season; often a sliver.
Less do they play games poorly and still manage to win, and they struggle through more valiant efforts that result in heartbreaking losses.
They were 2:02 from victory against the undefeated-in-regulation Blackhawks when a fortunate bounce put the puck on the stick of Patrick Kane. He buried it behind Jimmy Howard to send the game to overtime.
How narrow their margin? Howard was terrific all day, an absolute wall.
A bit bashful and uncompetitive in the first period back home after a trip to California?
It could cost the Red Wings a win, and it did Sunday.
A couple of mistakes, like shooting the puck into the crowd instead of off the glass on clear-outs? It more readily spells defeat; and it did Sunday.
The opposing goalie miraculously gets a speck of his blocker on a shot and it hits the post and deflects away from the net, as Corey Crawford managed to do against Johan Franzen late in the game? There might not be enough other chances to score a crucial second goal.
And there was not against the Blackhawks on Sunday.
So, the Red Wings continue to evolve. But they need to play awfully well for the entirety of 60 minutes, almost without fail, to prevail — especially against a juggernaut like the Blackhawks.
It was a great effort. It is perhaps arguable that, in fairness, the Red Wings should have won and ended the Blackhawks' record-setting streak of remaining undefeated in regulation at the start of a season.
But as well as they played for long junctures, they required a better first period and fewer mistakes. Unless they do that, on almost any night their chances of winning are reduced from previous seasons. And against a team like the Blackhawks?
Just a little short
"Obviously, for us, we thought we had an opportunity, and it got away from us there," coach Mike Babcock said. "It would have been a game we would've loved to have won.
"I don't think it was a lack of playing hard here today, for sure. I thought we played hard, as a group. But, in the end, we just didn't execute enough to get it done."
For a brief time at the start, the Wings looked OK. But then the Blackhawks picked up the pace in the first period, assisted by two power plays, and it seemed like once the Wings went on the two kills, they had trouble getting any offensive push.
They looked a lot better the rest of the game — terrific, at times. But they could not convert a second goal, Crawford was borderline unbelievable and Jonathan Ericsson and Niklas Kronwall both inadvertently put the puck over the glass, intending to clear their zone, late in the third period.
Up and off the glass is an easy, often preferred, way out of the zone. But missing the glass can be most costly.
The bottom line is the standings at the beginning of the day had the Red Wings with 23 points, and now it is 24 when it easily could have been 25.
"That was what we wanted to do, to get the two points," the captain, Henrik Zetterberg said. "We were close, but not close enough."
Room to improve
Zetterberg rejected any notion that to beat Chicago, the Red Wings — especially given the state of their roster, with a rebuilding defense and lots of injuries — must play just about a perfect game, to win.
Setting the bar high, Zetterberg said the Red Wings are not yet approaching that quality of game, regardless. Zetterberg prefers to see the shortfalls as room for improvement.
"Well, I don't think we were close to perfect," Zetterberg said, "and we almost beat them anyway."
If we have learned anything about the Wings, through 22 games, it is they have fortitude. They will hang tough, generally, and work to improve — even though the results are not always the same as in other years.
The great frustration is that points are at a premium, and if they should fall short of the playoffs, come April 28, they already have a batch of "could have done its" they can ponder.
What will they do about this one that got away? Zetterberg provided some wisdom.
"Well, just forget about it," he said. "We've got a new game coming up here soon. We'll enjoy the day off tomorrow and come back and work hard and win the next game."