AFTER THE FALL

The beards came off, the suits came on and the players reluctantly walked out. With their hair still wet, many Red Wings looked like what they were: a bunch of athletes not ready to be wearing street clothes, not ready to be done, but done just the same. Kris Draper greeted his wife and kids and stood quietly for a minute, the kids holding his legs. Justin Abdelkader talked with visitors, looking even younger than his 22 years. Henrik Zetterberg emerged clean-shaven, a necktie tight on a white shirt and a dark suit; he could have been going to a funeral.

Mountaintop, denied.

“This is a new situation for me,” Zetterberg said. “It’s a new situation for the whole team, you know?”

It’s new for many Wings fans, too. The previous four times Detroit got into the finals, it finished with the Stanley Cup. We got used to that. In Detroit, we win it all or we get bumped in an early round.

But Game 7? At home? A one-goal difference? This is too fragile to drop, too rare to give away. The players shrugged as they said their good-byes Friday. But now, when there is no practice, no media, nothing but memories, the hazy pain of Friday becomes the throbbing headache of the summer.

Because getting this close is virtually as rare as winning it.

“We’ll be back next year,” several Wings insisted, and we hope it’s true. But there’s a reason so few NHL teams repeat as champions, or even finalists. It’s the toughest postseason in sports. And being great is no guarantee of anything. Coulda, shoulda, woulda

San Jose was great. Look at how early it was done. Anaheim was great. It went out in the second round. The Wings were great, and they asserted that early in these finals. But the Penguins grew greater before our eyes, and the longer the series went, the tighter their defense played, and the more they believed in themselves. Never mind the 5-0 drubbing in Game 5. The Penguins took a ton of stupid penalties and paid for them. In retrospect, maybe we gave too much credit to the Wings for that victory. The fact is, Pittsburgh beat the defending champs four times in five games. And the Wings scored six goals in those four defeats.

Five games, four losses, six goals. Those numbers tell most of the story. The rest is told in moments. Like Dan Cleary’s breakaway that he couldn’t cash in. Like Pittsburgh’s shorthanded goal in Game 4 that turned the tide. Like Niklas Kronwall hitting the crossbar Friday, and Brad Stuart’s costly turnover by his net that led to the Penguins’ first score and took the air out of Joe Louis Arena.

As the clock neared midnight, Stuart, also in a dark suit, leaned against a locker-room wall, his voice even softer than usual.

“I should have just made the safe play,” he said. “… The puck hit a skate or shin pad. That’s my fault. …

“If I could do it over, I would.”

Will this be a long summer, he was asked?

“No, a short summer.”

Then he paused. “And in some ways a long summer.”

Mountaintop, denied. Credit to the Pens, too

Now, the Wings deserve applause. They staved off Anaheim, Chicago, Sidney Crosby, injuries, fatigue, bad scheduling and a champion’s burden – all to get within inches of the Cup. Chris Osgood – who lost a ring, the Conn Smythe and the right to shut up doubters on his Hall of Fame credentials, all on a night he played well!- should be celebrated, as should Zetterberg, Helm, Ericsson and so many others.

Mike Babcock said his team played with guts, but never reached its full potential over these seven games. “With the injuries,” he said, “I didn’t think we did that in the final at all.”

Maybe not. Maybe the Wings are better than they showed with uncharacteristic turnovers and scoring slumps for Marian Hossa, Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Jiri Hudler and Tomas Holmstrom.

But when you get a sixth and seventh game to win it all, you have to grab it – full talent or not. Ask the Pistons about coming oh-so-close in their attempt to repeat in the 2005 NBA Finals; they had reasons for losing, too.

But they haven’t been back since.

Mountaintop, denied. The full maddening frustration of Friday will be felt when the Wings start training camp in September and realize they are back on flat ground with all the other teams. You want to say thank you, and you should. You want to nod to great Detroit play and great Detroit players, and you should. You want to be classy and admit that Pittsburgh beat the Wings at their own game – defense and opportunism – and you should.

But you can’t deny it hurts to be beardless, skateless and Cup-less today. The view from the top is gone. What’s worse, so is the view from the near-top. All that’s left is saying nice things to players in street clothes who nod politely but wish they didn’t have to hear them.

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