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Red Wings exit in the first round for the third time in four years

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In the end, they could not defeat the array of forces set against them.

They faced the most proficient offense in the regular season, the injustice inflicted upon them by the NHL enforcement staff, the absence of one-third of their defensive corps, season-ending injuries to Johan Franzen and Erik Cole and free agents who decided in past summers to go play somewhere else.

Their own inconsistency seemed to doom them.

But they were keen for the struggle, and nearly prevailed.

The Red Wings took it to the Lightning in Game 7 in Tampa on Wednesday, outskating them, outshooting them, arraying an effective defense against them and looking for all the world through two periods as though they would defeat them — despite all the odds.

They simply could not finish.

Despite all of their shots and the scoring chances they generated, the Wings could not score, despite outshooting the Lightning, 31-17.

Play in their end

The Red Wings defensive schemes and execution returned with a vengeance in Game 7.

It helped them jump-start their offense.

And that turned out to be the best part of their defense.

Down two-thirds of their top six defensemen, with Niklas Kronwall suspended and Marek Zidlicky injured, their best defensive strategy was getting the puck, taking it into the Lightning's zone and setting up camp.

And at that, they were awesome.

They outshot the Lightning 6-0 in the first 2:50, 14-7 in the first period and 9-5 in the second.

Through most of the second period, they utterly deprived the Lighting of one of their greatest assests, their strength 5-on-5.

The Wings were outshooting them, at that juncture, 16-4, when playing five aside.

Wasting chances

Try though they might, time and time again, the Red Wings simply could not finish their chances.

Ben Bishop, the big Lightning goalie, looked jittery and unsure of himself, again. And the Wings shot and shot, but to no avail.

Drew Miller nearly put one by the sprawling, diving Bishop, as he came well out of his net for a loose puck, but Miller fired wide.

Tomas Tatar shot five at the net, and Gustav Nyquist four.

But they could not convert.

And the Lightning scored first.

Braydon Coburn, a defenseman, found a loose puck 25 feet from goalie Petr Mrazek and he let a wrist shot go that knuckled into the net.

It was a big first goal, after the Lightning looked like the inferior team, by a wide margin, for most of the game.

Crime, punishment

The punishment did not fit the crime, and for the Red Wings to have played Game 7 without their top defenseman, leader in time on ice and leader on the ice and in the dressing room was unjust, by any measure.

Especially compared to other similar hits that were never reviewed, or reviewed and deemed unworthy of sanction, Kronwall's body check on Nikita Kucherov should not have resulted in a suspension — let alone for what long has been considered the equivalent of four regular season games, a playoff game.

And it came in a playoff game in which the suspended player's team faced elimination.

He took responsibility, as he always does.

But like the victim of injustice in a Russian novel, he was utterly flummoxed.

"It's hard to describe, really," Kronwall said. "I still don't really know how to feel, to be honest with you. I still haven't really grasped it, I think. You know, the decision has been made, and I've got to live with it."

Where it hurts

Of all the places for a travesty of justice to occur, the defense is where the Red Wings could least afford it.

Deprived of free agents like Ryan Suter, Matt Niskanen and Dan Boyle, and stymied in trades for others, the Wings have stuck with developing defensemen out of Grand Rapids. It has contributed greatly to their inconsistent performance.

Meanwhile, they were playing the most proficient offense in the regular season.

Losing Kronwall was a cruel blow to a team that strived mightily play as well as they could, on the back end.

The captain

Henrik Zetterberg had an inside-out year. Usually, he starts slowly.

This year, after back surgery and a strict workout regimen in the offseason, he got out of the blocks, quickly.

It was the end of the season that lagged, this time.

April and May are usually Zetterberg time.

April was not, and they will not play in May.

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/greggkrupa

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