Tampa, Fla. — A goal short, a step short, a man short. The Red Wings pushed hard, against mounting obstacles, but spent a sweaty Florida night searching for something that kept slipping out of reach.
They peppered Lightning goalie Ben Bishop but couldn't tuck a puck past him, a long, twisted series reduced to one blunt conclusion. Tampa Bay hung on for a 2-0 victory in Game 7 Wednesday night, sending the Wings home early again, out in the first round for the third time in four years.
They were heavy underdogs in the series but didn't play like it, and they can take solace in that, I suppose. Now they head toward an uncertain future, with Mike Babcock set to become a free agent. His situation — which he declined to discuss after the game — is the first major question, followed closely by the dearth of scoring.
As the game went on, the Wings became pictures of persistence, framed by frustration. There was captain Henrik Zetterberg, hunting for the tying goal in the third period, taking a pass from Gustav Nyquist and firing the puck toward Bishop, who slid to make an acrobatic save. For all the Wings' concern, and justifiable rancor, over Niklas Kronwall's one-game suspension, this didn't come down to an absent defenseman. It came down to an old bugaboo — the empty score sheet.
This exit was a crusher, similar to the Game 7 loss to the Blackhawks two years ago. The Wings had a chance to wrap it up at home but fell 5-2 in Game 6. They had numerous chances in Game 7, outshooting the Lightning 31-17, but Zetterberg epitomized the close-but-not-quite-there feel, held scoreless in the series.
"I think we fought hard, one of our best games, but we couldn't find a way to get the puck in," Zetterberg said. "It's really tiring (to lose in the first round). We had a good team, we had a good chance, but unfortunately we couldn't get it done. I can only look to myself. I couldn't really produce the way I wanted this postseason. No goals. The amount of minutes I play, I should be able to score more goals."
Petr Mrazek was excellent in net again but so was Bishop. Tampa Bay finally broke through in the third period, when Braydon Coburn whistled a shot over Mrazek's right shoulder. An empty-net goal by Anton Stralman clinched it with 1:18 left, and Tampa Bay now heads to Montreal for the second round.
The Wings head home, encouraged by how well they played at times, discouraged by the continuing spate of miscues. They have older stars and promising youth making halting progress. There will be some changes, but Babcock's situation will have to be settled before anything else.
"It's disappointing for our group for sure," Babcock said. "We thought we did a lot of good things. No one picked us to win the series. If you watch Game 7, it sure didn't look like a lopsided series."
As for his status, Babcock said he'd talk about it in the next couple days.
"I always do this at the end of every year, and no different this year," he said. "(GM) Ken Holland and I will sit down and we'll look at the team like we always do."
As Game 7 began, the obstacles were stacked sufficiently high, not that the Wings were ruffled. In the space of 24 hours, they'd lost two defensemen — their best (Kronwall) and their oldest (Marek Zidlicky). Kronwall was out with the controversial one-game suspension and Zdlicky was out with a concussion.
It was daunting, but in some ways, it had to be invigorating. Besides, how much more daunting can it get, playing a Game 7 on the road against a speedy opponent? The game was every bit as tight as the series, 0-0 through two periods. There are a lot of old sayings in hockey that probably aren't as true as they seem, but this one was truer than ever — the first pressure-releasing goal would be huge.
Even the statistics prove it. In the history of Game 7s in the NHL, the team that scored first won at a 74-percent clip (116-41). Consider the home team in Game 7s only wins at a 59-percent clip (92-65). So, if given the choice of being at home or scoring first, the Wings historically would opt for scoring first.
So much at stake
They came out as if they'd do exactly that. In the opening minutes, they were all over the ice, sucking the early energy out of the crowd. Barely six minutes in, the shots were 9-1, and Zetterberg nearly banged in a rebound goal.
If the Wings intended to retreat into a shell without two of their defensemen, they didn't show it. You could even say they dominated Game 7 for stretches, a harbinger of nothing in this wacky series, in which several games were "stolen," in hockey parlance.
"It's a bounce their way and that's how they win the game," defenseman Jonathan Ericsson said. "I think we were better. … I think we played better as the series went on, but there are small bounces that makes a big difference. We felt we had them. Everyone was hungry for the second round."
There was so much at stake, beginning with Babcock himself. He's set to become a rare hot free-agent coach, and how far the Wings advanced surely would factor into his future. There was the crushing Kronwall suspension, although Jakub Kindl and Alexey Marchenko played well. And there were those nagging early exits, pitted against 24 consecutive playoff appearances.
This was the setting, as tense as it could get, as unpredictable as a series could be. Each team had won twice on the road, each had 15 goals in six games. Forget about one goal winning the series — one goal-saving play could do it.
The Wings got a big one late in the first period, when Tampa Bay's prolific scorer Tyler Johnson headed toward the goal and slid the puck in front toward Nikita Kucherov, who saw a wide-open net. He would have fired it in if not for Luke Glendening, who reached with his stick to barely tip the puck away.
That's how it went, with scoring chances disappearing in the flash of a stick, or a pad. Through two periods, the Wings were controlling play, although as this series has shown, control only lasts as long as the next shift or the next shot. The Wings fell just short, by a goal or two, by a man or two. It's not a big gap, but one they've spent several years futilely trying to close.