CHICAGO -- About a week before the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs began, it appeared the Detroit Red Wings might not be taking part.
Instead, the Red Wings won their final four games of the regular season and earned an invitation for their 22nd straight tournament on the final day. It would be hard to find someone who thought this retooled Detroit roster was ready for a long playoff run, but the Red Wings were one goal from the Western Conference Final on Wednesday night.
Alas, that goal was scored by the rival Chicago Blackhawks, and the Red Wings' season came to an end in overtime of Game 7 at United Center. Strange as it was to see the Red Wings positioned as an underdog, they embraced the role.
Here are five reasons the clock struck midnight for Detroit in the Western Conference Semifinals:
1. Special teams
Chicago is having a ridiculously great season on the penalty kill, finishing third in the NHL during the regular season and finding a new level of dominance in the postseason. That said, the Red Wings only being able to dent the Blackhawks' PK once in seven games is a big swing in a tightly contested series.
Detroit’s PK also was strong, but Chicago's Marian Hossa opened the scoring in two games with a power-play goal and the Blackhawks took control of Game 5 with back-to-back PPGs. The final tally for Detroit’s power play was 1-for-24 in the series, and that proved to be a problem.
2. Youth on defense
One of the reasons the Red Wings found a new level in the playoffs was the improvement of the team’s young players, but one of the reasons the Blackhawks controlled play for long stretches in the final three games was because some of that youth in the blueline corps showed.
Brendan Smith was the second man into the corner to cover Niklas Hjalmarsson, which left Michal Handzus wide open for the tying goal in Game 6, then Smith was unable to keep Bryan Bickell from the rebound on the go-ahead goal later in the third period. Smith is a classic high-risk, high-reward defenseman, and he was inconsistent at times during the postseason. He also had some great moments and looks like a keeper. The Red Wings dressed four rookies on defense for at least two games in this postseason.
3. Not enough two-way play
Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are considered among the best two-way players in the world, and their defensive work at the beginning of this series was outstanding. The superstars from the Blackhawks they were defending should earn some plaudits, though, for their defensive work.
Zetterberg did score Detroit's only goal in Game 7, but he finished the series with that lone tally and four points after racking up five in Games 6 and 7 against the Anaheim Ducks. Datsyuk had a great goal in Game 3 and a great assist in Game 6, but that was it on the score sheet. He also didn’t have quite as many “wow” moments in the second half of the series as he typically does in any given game.
4. A couple key injuries
This series was tightly contested, and there wasn’t nearly as wide a gap between the two clubs as it might have appeared on paper. With that in mind, not having defenseman Danny DeKeyser for the series was a big deal for Detroit.
DeKeyser’s strength is moving the puck out of danger, and the Red Wings struggled with that when the Blackhawks were really rolling. Detroit also lost top-six forward Valtteri Filppula less than four minutes into Game 7 and had to play nearly the entire contest with 11 forwards and without someone who had six points in his previous five Game 7s.
5. Chicago is a better team
This is kind of the obvious one. On paper, this was not supposed to be a close series. The Red Wings stunned the Blackhawks by winning three of the first four, and much of that was because goalie Jimmy Howard was a star.
Detroit made great strides in the postseason, and the experience the young players gained from this will be invaluable. General manager Ken Holland has salary cap space at his disposal this summer, and there are a few more prospects who could make an impact next season. Simply put, this Blackhawks team is built to win a championship right now, while this was a transition year for the Red Wings. Howard and some nice work from the depth forwards nearly helped Detroit steal this series, but in the end the more talented and experienced team survived a great test and moved on.