CHICAGO -- Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard slowly packed the last of his goalie equipment into his bag following the Chicago Blackhawks' 2-1 overtime win over Detroit in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. He let out a long exhale, then got a pat on the back from Paul Boyer, the Red Wings' longtime head equipment manager.
Howard nodded toward his gear and turned to Boyer.
“Just drop them into Lake Michigan,” Howard said.
It was settling in to Howard that he wouldn’t need these pads for a while, that the rival Blackhawks are the team that gets to keep playing while the Red Wings head back to Detroit haunted by knowing just how close they came to upsetting the NHL’s best team of the regular season. Close, but not good enough.
“I thought we did a lot of great things out there. I thought we did a great job. I’m really proud of the way this team carried itself this year,” said Howard, who made 33 saves in another outstanding effort. “Especially when a lot of people counted us out. A lot of people didn’t even expect this series to get past four games. It sort of stinks it’s all over with.”
It’s harder because somewhere along the line these Red Wings started to believe they might be part of something special. They knocked out a powerful Anaheim Ducks team in the first round that saw the fast-forwarded maturation of young players Joakim Andersson, Gustav Nyquist and Brendan Smith.
They jumped out to a 3-1 series lead against the favored Blackhawks, and even entered the third period of Game 6 with a one-goal lead that they couldn’t hold. Advancement was so tantalizingly close.
“Listen, it’s a good team we played. Guys should be proud and disappointed,” Red Wings forward Daniel Cleary said. “We had a chance, three chances to close it out and we just didn’t get it done.”
The Red Wings won four consecutive regular-season games just to make the playoffs. Then as the No. 7 seed, they rallied from a 3-2 series deficit to eliminate the Ducks. And even though the Blackhawks came storming back into a series, the Red Wings couldn’t close, when Niklas Hjalmarsson’s apparent game-winning goal was waved off in Game 7, it looked like it might be one of those breaks a successful playoff team needs along the way to make a long run in the spring.
Instead, it was just a speed bump on Chicago’s path to the next round.
That the young Red Wings gave the Blackhawks all they could handle on the way to a fantastic Western Conference finals showdown against the reigning champion Los Angeles Kings didn’t make the finality feel any better.
“It’s kind of a shock right now that it’s all over,” Red Wings defenseman Kyle Quincey said. “You’re so emotionally invested in that. One shot, and it all comes to a screeching halt.”
Especially the way it happened. In trying to keep the game-winning shot from getting to Howard, Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall deflected it enough to change the trajectory of the puck on its way past the goalie.
It’s how these games often end. A deflection. A bounce. Or a shot nobody sees go in except the guy who shot it. Chicago has a long history of these moments, and Brent Seabrook now has a goal that joins it. It’s also the goal that ends this chapter of the rivalry between the Red Wings and Blackhawks, with Detroit’s move east next season.
An overtime winner in Game 7 was a fitting finish; it’s almost the way this game had to end. It’s just not the ending Kronwall and the Red Wings envisioned. At some point, the strides made by the Red Wings in these playoffs will feel good, and they’ll realize that a young group gained experience that will be drawn upon in playoff runs down the road.
It just doesn’t feel great now. Losing never does, not to competitors such as these.
“It’s something you never can get used to. You don’t want to get used to. You want to have a chance [at] raising the Cup,” Kronwall said. “It’s just empty right now."