Paul Coffey was on his knees, his left leg throbbing, his head slamming the ice in frustration. No. No. No. No. Seconds before, he had watched a bullet go through the lungs of Detroit’s Stanley Cup hopes, and he was helpless to stop it, like some ill-fated soldier in the movies, who reaches, reaches, but just can’t pull his friend into the foxhole.

“Get up! Someone get him up!” you could almost hear the Joe Louis Arena crowd scream Tuesday night, seconds before the goal that gave New Jersey a commanding 2-0 lead in these finals. “Somebody blow a whistle! Somebody do something!”

Nobody blew a whistle. Nobody did anything. Coffey was down, the puck was loose and you could almost feel the bad ending coming to this hard-hitting, bare-knuckled evening that saw every moment of Red Wings joy met by a moment of Devil-ish retribution.

Coffey was there for all the bad parts. What cruel casting. After all, hadn’t Coffey been the voice of reason following the Game 1 defeat, reminding his team: “This isn’t a party. Making the finals doesn’t mean anything unless you win”?

Now, as if fate wanted to rub his nose in it, here he was, in the second period, caught up ice when New Jersey’s John MacLean led a three-on-one break and put the puck through Mike Vernon’s legs.

And here he was again, third period, when Scott Niedermayer — who is often called the next Paul Coffey — went the length of the ice, fired wide and, with Coffey right alongside him, rebounded his shot off the end boards and poked it in — like something out of the Harlem Globetrotters. From his own blue line?

“I just wanted to put a shot on net,” Niedermayer later said. “It was a pretty lucky bounce.”

Great. Thanks a lot.

Still, bad as that was, Coffey could have lived with it. But no. Here came the last two minutes, the score tied, 2-2, the crowd on its feet, and whack! Bill Guerin whizzed a shot that hit Coffey in the leg. Down he went. And down he stayed, even as the puck found its way to Shawn Chambers, who fired a shot that bounced off Vernon and hung out in front, like a pigeon in the line of fire.

Coffey saw it. It was a few feet from his face. If he were standing, he would have gotten to it, poked it away, kept them alive . . .

“I saw Coff down, and I knew he would have been right there otherwise,” said Kris Draper, who was across the ice at the time. “I wanted to get there, but I was too far away . . .”

Instead, here came Jim Dowd, a guy who didn’t even play in Game 1, and not far from Coffey’s head, he whacked the puck past Vernon and put a clamp on the night, and a handcuff on the Wings’ plans to bring the first Stanley Cup to this city in 40 years.

“I didn’t even see the shot,” Coffey said. “I saw him coming, and I heard the crowd moan. I was still waiting for a bleeping whistle.”

No whistle. No help.

No fun. A brutal battle

Next thing you knew, the arena was a morgue. What a deflating end for a game that, for a while, had Detroit spirits soaring — even though the Wings once again got only 18 shots, and once again sent the puck more into the Devils’ legs and thighs than into the net, and once again played short-handed, with injured Keith Primeau not even dressing, after saying he “would have to be dragged off the ice.”

They could have used Primeau. He is a hulking force, and this was less a hockey game than one of those Toughman contests, bare knuckles, brute strength, last man conscious wins. It was banging, and slamming, and hitting the ice. It was Vladimir Konstantinov whumping Chambers and flipping him over the boards into the Detroit bench. Take that! It was Sergei Fedorov streaking down the ice, puck on stick, and KABONG! — sandwiched by two New Jersey players, the puck falling away like a dropped penny.

It was Chambers skating into the middle and getting crunched by Slava Fetisov and tackled by Draper. And it was Slava Kozlov, getting checked so hard by Scott Stevens that he was separated from both his helmet and his consciousness. I don’t want to say that was a mean hit, but Kozlov, who is Russian, got up speaking Spanish.

But that was the kind of game it was. And by the third period, after all that, the score was still tied, 1-1, and Detroit fans were back to the lumps in their throats, and the growing sense that something really bad might happen. Throughout these playoffs, the Wings had never faced a moment like this, the success of their season perhaps hanging in the balance of their next 20 minutes. Let’s face it. Their only two losses of this post-season came when they were up three games to none. That’s not really pressure.

This was pressure. This was the test that champions talk about. This was the moment you find out what you’re made of.

Here is what we found. The Wings have heart — Fedorov capped a terrific night with his first goal in three weeks, to give them a 2-1 lead with 18:24 left to play. “We are a good enough team to protect that lead,” Fedorov said.

But here is what we found out about the Devils: They have heart as well.

And they have the bounces.

“It’s like they’re getting the kind of breaks that we got against Chicago,” Dino Ciccarelli said after the 4-2 Jersey victory was in the books.

Wait a minute. The Wings won the first two games of that Chicago series, and clinched it three games later.

It might be best to forget Dino ever made that comment. Still time to rally

But it will not be easy to forget Tuesday night. Although the Wings had some good moments, the Devils are like a fishy odor. Once they get on you, you can’t get rid of them. You look up, one of them is draping you, blocking your shot, cutting between you and the man you’re trying to hit with a pass.

The Wings have to solve that. They keep talking about “playing our game,” and not worrying about the opponent. That’s a good philosophy. Of course, the Devils are doing the same, trying to play their game, not the Wings’. So what it comes down to is this: Who’s got the stronger game?

To this point, it’s New Jersey. Much as you hate to admit it, the Devils have the better mousetrap for this series — so far. They clamp. They wait. And Tuesday, they even won the game with speed (Niedermayer) and aggressive shots when they had the chance. It is not the end. Teams have come back from 0-2 deficits many times. It is not a funeral.

But it is not good news.

After midnight, when nearly everyone had gone, Coffey emerged from the showers. He limped noticeably, and the bruise on his leg was no doubt growing. He pulled on his jacket and headed for the door.

“We can come back,” he said. “We’re a good road team. This is by no means over.”

He stopped and looked around the room. Someone asked whether it was fate that put him in on all the worst plays, all but one of the New Jersey goals.

He sighed. “It was not a good night,” he said, and he limped out to find his family.

It was not a good night, but it was not the last night either. For now, it is simply a bad end to what could have been a good Detroit evening. And the picture that lingers will be Coffey, on the ice, watching helplessly as the winning shot flew past. Eventually, after a few minutes, he got up.,

The question is, can the Wings?

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