TAMPA -- Pavel Datsyuk couldn't believe it was over.
He wiped his face with a towel and walked into the dressing room, already cleaned out except for a horde of reporters. He stood in the middle in a Detroit Red Wings warmup jacket and shorts, backed up as the TV cameras rushed toward him, then stopped and took a long, deep breath.
"Really, still in the game," he said. "Still can't believe we lost. But it's real emotional now."
Datsyuk's incomparable NHL career might have ended in sudden, disappointing fashion Thursday. Tampa Bay Lightning forward Alex Killorn scored with 1:43 left in the third period, and the Red Wings lost 1-0 and were eliminated from the Eastern Conference First Round in five games.
Before the Stanley Cup Playoffs began, Datsyuk, 37, told the Detroit Free Press he planned to return to Russia after this season. He later told reporters he wasn't certain. But he said he wasn't thinking of that in the final moments of Game 5, when he took one last rush up the ice and flicked a shot into the glove of goaltender Ben Bishop or when the horn sounded and he lined up for handshakes.
"At the end, I was just thinking like it's still another, more time, maybe another period," Datsyuk said. "It's kind of when I started to recognize it's a game over and we lost the series."
Datsyuk said he didn't have a timeline to make a firm decision.
"I need a little bit to cool down and for the emotion to go out, and then start thinking about more," Datsyuk said.
Datsyuk went from the 171st player taken in the 1998 NHL Draft to one of the best, if not the best, two-way players in the League. He won the Stanley Cup twice, the Selke Trophy three times and the Lady Byng Trophy four times. He scored 314 goals and had 918 points in 953 regular-season games, as well as 42 goals and 113 points in 157 playoff games, all with the Red Wings.
He will also be remembered as one of the most entertaining players of all time, earning the nickname "Magic Man" for his now-you-see-it-now-you-don't moves. He had a rare combination of creativity and hustle. Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz once said Datsyuk had "joy" in his game; he was certainly a joy to watch backcheck, stripping pucks from unsuspecting opponents, as well as when he played Houdini in the offensive end.
Video: BOS@DET: Datsyuk nets 900th point with goal
"Let's hope it's not," Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said when asked about the possibility that this was Datsyuk's last NHL game. "I just hope it's not. Right now it's a completely empty feeling. Let's just hope for everyone's sake -- for the hockey fan, for us, for Detroit -- that it's not."
The Red Wings -- including teammates, coach Jeff Blashill, general manager Ken Holland and owner Mike Ilitch -- will try to talk Datsyuk out of it, and not just for sentimental reasons. This is business.
Datsyuk signed a front-loaded, three-year contract and has played only two-thirds of it. He made $10 million last season. He made $7 million this season. Now he wants to leave when he would have made $5.5 million, leaving the Red Wings with a $7.5 million cap charge because of rules governing contacts of players 35 and older? And he might play in the KHL?
It's easy to say the Red Wings could trade his contract to a team that needs to reach the cap floor, then use the cap space to sign, say, Lightning center Steven Stamkos, a pending unrestricted free agent. There are few teams that could absorb Datsyuk's cap charge, and they know the Red Wings' situation. They will want a major asset in return, perhaps a first-round pick.
"You know Pavel well enough that Pavel will do what Pavel wants to do," Blashill said. "Pav was one of the best competitors that will ever be in this league. He was amazing to coach this year, so I hope I get a chance to coach him next year."
The Red Wings are in a delicate position. They have made the playoffs for 25 straight seasons, an incredible accomplishment, especially under the circumstances. They haven't had a top-10 selection in the draft since 1991. No other NHL team has made the playoffs every season since the salary cap was introduced in 2005-06. But they have lost in the first round three years in a row and four times in the past five years, not good enough for a team that won the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.
"It gets tougher and tougher to go all the way," captain Henrik Zetterberg said. "The first step is making the playoffs. We keep doing that. But then it's nothing more. That gets frustrating."
Video: TBL@DET, Gm3: Zetterberg's deflection doubles lead
Datsyuk and Zetterberg, selected No. 210 in the 1999 NHL Draft, helped extend the Red Wings' run, essentially replacing Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov. But they aren't what they used to be. Nor is Kronwall. Whether Datsyuk leaves now or later, the Red Wings face the same issue: replacing their core.
Ownership has given management no mandate to tear down the roster, so the Red Wings can miss the playoffs, bottom out, draft high and rebuild. Ilitch remembers when Detroit wasn't known as "Hockeytown"; when he bought the team in the 1980s, the team had to give away cars to draw fans. He is building a new arena, set to open in 2017-18. He wants it to be full.
Holland will keep trying to rebuild on the fly. He didn't make a move at the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 29 because he didn't want to trade an asset for a role player who wouldn't put the team over the top, as he did in recent years. If Datsyuk leaves, Holland might not trade his contract and accept the cap charge, even if it puts the streak in jeopardy. You don't rebuild by trading high draft picks. You rebuild by drafting and developing.
Datsyuk didn't want to talk about his future after the game Thursday.
"Not happy with thinking about these questions," he said.
No one in Detroit is happy about it. But this is the reality. This could be the bitter end. Datsyuk didn't have a bad series, but he didn't have a point in five games. He hit a post Thursday, when the Red Wings failed to score despite numerous chances, including three breakaways. Story of the season.
The last question Datsyuk answered was about his health.
"I am pretty healthy, thank my God," he said. "Everything's fine. Only my hand can't score."
With that, he was whisked away. The Magic Man disappeared.