PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins talked about how close they were to being even after four games, to leading the Stanley Cup Final after five. They talked about an inch here, an inch there being the difference.
In the end, though, close wasn't good enough.
It never is.
The Detroit Red Wings celebrated their fourth Stanley Cup championship since 1997 on the Penguins' ice Wednesday night with a 3-2 victory because they weren't just close in this series, they were on point every time they needed to be, especially in Game 6.
"We have to remember this feeling for sure," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "We just couldn't get that one to get it back (to Detroit)."
The Penguins were definitely close to forcing a Game 7 thanks to yet another inspired performance Wednesday night. But Brian Rafalski's shot just nicked Hal Gill's leg, Brooks Orpik was a step behind Valtteri Filppula, and Marc-Andre Fleury was one inch too high in his crease before sitting down on the edge of the puck.
Three inches. Three goals.
It was enough for the Red Wings, but barely.
Marian Hossa tipped in Sergei Gonchar's slap shot to make it 3-2 with 1:27 remaining. And, in a play that defines how close the Penguins really were, Sidney Crosby's backhander with two seconds left slid, harmlessly, just two inches to the right of the post. Hossa sent the puck back across the goal line as time expired.
"The game was so close," Fleury said.
Close indeed, but as the cliché goes, it is a game of inches and the Penguins didn't win that last inch or two.
"Well if the last play is an example," Crosby said, "I think that is (true)."
The Penguins' problem, though, was that the only two games of the Final that weren't close were Games 1 and 2 in Detroit. The Red Wings dominated the play, dominated the shots and dominated the scoreboard by a wide 7-0 margin.
Not so close. Not good. The Penguins, as many predicted, couldn't recover.
"That's unfortunate," Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "It feels like you have to win one of those because in the next four games we played really well. I'm sure teams have won losing both, but you don't see it too often. If we get back it has to be a goal of ours. If you don't have home ice, you've got to split on the road."
Even so, the Penguins got an inspired effort from their captain Crosby and won Game 3 by a -- you guessed it -- slim 3-2 margin after taking a 2-0 lead. And yes, they were so, dare we say, close to winning Game 4, too.
In fact, all it took for the Red Wings to sneak out with that win and a 3-1 lead in the series was Jiri Hudler's backhanded shot 2:26 into the third period, and a remarkable 5-on-3 penalty kill by your Stanley Cup champions roughly eight minutes later.
Remember, though, on Hudler's goal Orpik tried to wrap the puck around the right wing boards to clear it out, but Brad Stuart barely held it in the zone at the blue line before getting it low, leading to the goal.
Close. So close.
"The Final is just about one mistake here and there," said veteran winger Petr Sykora, who is someone that should know considering he has now come up short in his last three Stanley Cup Final appearances.
To be fair, the Penguins were close to losing Game 5, too, but Maxime Talbot turned into the most famous role player on the planet with his tuck-in tying goal in the game's final minute. Close to 50 minutes into overtime, Sykora sent a dagger through Motown with his overtime winner.
They were back in the series, trailing only 3-2. It was, here's that word again, close.
"They looked like they were out of it in Game 5 and then beat us in overtime," Detroit GM Ken Holland said. "They have the heart of a champion, too."
In fact, with confidence and heart mimicking that of a 10-time champion, the Penguins returned to Pittsburgh floating on a high before Game 6. Never in a million years did they think they weren't going to force a Game 7.
"It was 3-1 and guys realized it would be tough," Whitney said, "but we got that one and we had our chance."
But Rafalski's goal made it 1-0 and Filppula's extended the lead to 2-0. It wasn't so close anymore, at least for the time being.
Evgeni Malkin, who wasn't even close to himself in the first two games thanks to a bout with the flu, pumped in his only goal of the series with 6:34 to play in the second period making it 2-1 Wings.
The Penguins were close again. Their home crowd was buzzing. Their Hart Trophy candidate was finally off the schneid.
But when Fleury sat down on the edge of the puck that came his way off of Henrik Zetterberg's stick, all hope looked lost. Fleury's backside forced the puck to squirt backward and it went right into the net.
Down 3-1, with only 12 minutes and change left before NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman would hand the Cup to Nicklas Lidstrom, the Penguins weren't close anymore.
Or so it seemed.
Everybody watching this series learned in Game 5 that you never count this team out, so when Hossa tipped in Gonchar's shot to put a scare into the Red Wings the Penguins were close again, close to pulling off another miracle.
Crosby's shot nearly did just that, but close never counts.
"I'm almost speechless. We were that close," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "The hockey god was not on our side."
It wasn't far away.
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com