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Wings deal with early-exit pain

by Brian Compton / Detroit Red Wings
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The feeling by many in hockey circles over the past few days was that if anybody could overcome a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series, the Red Wings were that team.

They took one small step on Thursday night with a 7-1 demolition of the San Jose Sharks at Joe Louis Arena. On Saturday, in one of the more hostile atmospheres in the league, the Red Wings weathered an early storm as they were outshot 15-6 in the opening period -- and when Brian Rafalski gave Detroit a 1-0 lead just 2:40 into the second period, the feeling really began to gain steam. This awfully loud building became awfully quiet in a hurry.
But it wasn't meant to be.
In the end, the Red Wings were denied a fourth straight trip to the Western Conference finals after losing 2-1 to the San Jose Sharks in Game 5 at HP Pavilion. All four of Detroit's losses in the Western semifinals were by one goal. Sure, the Wings lost in five games, but it certainly didn't have that feel to it.
"It's tough when you fall short of your goal," Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "We felt that we were in the series even when we were down 3-0. Going into the third period, we felt confident and had a chance to win the game. We just couldn't get it done."
It's somewhat stunning, considering this is a franchise that in recent years has always found a way to get it done. In the previous two years, the Red Wings' offseason was shorter than basically everyone else's.
"We understand how hard it is to win every year," coach Mike Babcock said. "There's no question that year after year after year, we've played a ton of playoff games. That catches up. Our guys will have more time to work-out this summer than they've had in a long time. I think that will really help our high-end guys. Right now, it's a bitter pill to swallow. No one likes losing."
Detroit certainly doesn't, as evidenced by a remarkable push after the Olympic break just to get into playoff position in an extremely-tight Western Conference. But not only did the Red Wings reach the postseason for a 19th consecutive season, their second-half surge allowed them to finish as the No. 5 seed.
It's truly remarkable when you consider all they had to overcome, which included injuries to several key players, including Johan Franzen, who was limited to only 27 regular-season games due to a torn ACL, and Niklas Kronwall, who appeared in less than 50 contests.
"It's been a different season," forward Henrik Zetterberg said. "If you look back at the last three years, we have a different outcome. From the start this year, we had a lot of injuries and a lot of new faces on the team. But we found a way to get into the postseason. I think a lot of people doubted that we were going to make it, but we did. We gave it a good run, but it wasn't good enough."

"It wasn't good enough" are four words you rarely hear in this dressing room. Still, the Red Wings battled throughout the 2009-10 season and found a way to get past the first round despite having to win a seventh game in Phoenix -- a match they won by five goals. But in four of the five games played in Round 2, the Sharks -- the top seed on this side of the tournament -- were a goal better.
"It's been a different season … the injuries that we had to key players and being out of the playoffs for most of the year," Lidstrom said. "We battled through and finally got some guys back and got ourselves in the fifth spot in the playoffs. I thought we did play well in the first round. We battled hard and took Phoenix to seven games and beat them. It's disappointing when you fall short and it's only one-goal games that we lost."
Perhaps the longer break this summer will benefit the Red Wings, who need to retool considering several of their key players -- Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom included -- enter unrestricted free agency. Certainly, if Lidstrom decides against retirement, he'll be back.
If that's the case, he would be joined by several younger players -- Jimmy Howard and Justin Abdelkader immediately come to mind -- who took some major strides in 2009-10.
"We've had some huge growth from some young players," Babcock said. "Obviously, we had an unbelievable push just to get in the playoffs. You've got to give our guys credit. We'll be back trying to battle."
The fact that they're already discussing it shows the commitment of this unbelievably-proud organization.
"We refocus and get ready for next year," Zetterberg said. "We've got to come back stronger."

Author: Brian Compton | Staff Writer

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