ST. LOUIS — Won three, lost four. Those will be the final numbers hung on this Detroit hockey team. Won three, lost four — and didn’t lose by a whole lot, either. In fact, until that awful moment with 21 seconds left in the second period Tuesday night, when Brett Hull found the puck on his stick and nothing but open ice between him and his destiny, until that moment, this young Red Wing group looked like it might do what nobody said it could do — not once, but twice. Take a big lead in this first-round playoff series, blow it, then come back and win it anyhow.

All that ended with Hull, taking a pass from (who else?) Adam Oates and skating just beyond reach of defenseman Yves Racine, who chased him the way a dog chases a car as it speeds down the street. Hull loaded, aimed, and fired past a helpless Tim Cheveldae. The puck flew into the net, the crowd exploded, the organist blasted into “The Saints Go Marching In.” And the Wings, who fought the good fight, felt a sudden chill. The end of their season.

“Hull was the backbreaker,” coach Bryan Murray would later admit. The Wings would make one last surge, a final thrash against death, a furious charge in the closing minutes of the game, closing the score to 3-2. But they were fighting uphill, against the crowd, against fatigue — maybe even against fate at that point.

Won three, lost four.

“If we only could have gone into the third period tied,” said a weary Steve Yzerman, who played despite a sore knee that limited his usual startling ability to cut and accelerate. “If we could have got them thinking, and then the third comes and maybe we score a funny goal and we win before anyone realizes what happens. . . . “

His voice trailed off. There were many “if onlys” on this lonesome night, many ways in which the Wings might have found enough magic to beat these Blues in their home arena. Didn’t happen. Hull kicked the door open; his teammates kicked it shut. Inspired by his goal, they began the third period as if late for a party, rushing the net, banging the boards, and before the period was three minutes old, they had another goal, all they would need to escape this surprisingly difficult playoff series.

“They were the better team,” said Rick Zombo, in the quiet locker room afterward, “only because they scored one more goal than we did.”

That’s all it takes.

Won three, lost four. Win or lose, it’s a surprise

Go ahead. Say it. The Wings never should have lost this series. But then, they weren’t supposed to win it, either. Which explains the sort of confused feeling this morning as Detroit’s boys of winter head for the golf courses. Nobody gave them a chance against St. Louis. And yet when they beat the Blues three out of the first four games, no one gave them any slack. What’s that expression — do a little more than everyone expects and pretty soon everyone expects a little more? “When our fans were booing us at home in Game 6 the other night,” Shawn Burr said, “that was kind of bad, wasn’t it? I mean, they didn’t figure us to even be there, and then they boo us?”

Fickle fandom. The fact is, yes, the Red Wings did better than expected. And no, they didn’t do what they needed to do to advance to the Norris Division Finals. Critics will point to Game 6 in Detroit as the one that lost this series, but those people do not really understand sports. Game 5 was actually the one to win; Game 5, when the Wings had the Blues reeling. You want to be champions? You take care of business immediately. You go for the quick kill. Bill Laimbeer of the Pistons once bought a scythe into the locker room before a deciding playoff game against the Boston Celtics. He held it up to his teammates and snarled, “When you’ve got the snake down, you chop its head off.” That is the attitude of experienced hit men. And winning playoff teams.

A young squad like the Wings — many of whom were in the playoffs for the first time — hasn’t learned that lesson yet. They loosened their grip for Game 5, and by Game 6 they were actually feeling more pressure than the Blues, wanting so much to win in front of the home crowd, wanting so much not to disappoint. “We were so tight in that locker room,” Bryan Murray said of Sunday night’s game. “You could just feel it. We were too juiced up.”

Tuesday they almost found what they had lost. Yes, the game began as if played on a tilt, with Detroit skating uphill, St. Louis down. And yet the Wings hung in. They earned a goal from Racine, and Cheveldae withstood a furious barrage from the Blues in the second period. Then the third, when the ice became level again, and those furious final seven minutes, after Jimmy Carson scored to close it to 3-2. The Wings charged, they blasted, they crunched, they used every ounce of heart and guts. . . .

But you can’t win without your big guns. And the most telling statistic from this seven-game series is that Detroit went the final six games without a goal from Steve Yzerman or Sergei Fedorov. Not one goal? Considering that, it’s remarkable they were even playing Tuesday night.

“Does it bother me?” Yzerman said, refusing to blame his injury. “Yeah, it does. I’ve got a job to do. regardless of the conditions or the setting, I’ve got to get it done. No excuses.”

He sighed. No doubt watching Hull score the killer goal didn’t make his plight any easier. “I’ve gotta go home for the summer, come back next year, and do it all over again.”

Same as all of them.

Won three, lost four. Looks better than last year

And yet, there are reasons to keep your head up. First of all, this series was terrific, if only from a drama standpoint. There were fights and bruises and nasty words and suspensions, a general manager who got thrown out of the press box and a two-fisted forward who got tossed for punching a goalie in the face. There were octopuses and Hull and Oates and nights when Cheveldae looked like a video game goalie and nights when Vince Riendeau looked like, well, Cheveldae. There were moments where it really looked like the Wings could beat anybody. More than a few.

Yes, it ends in defeat. And yes, for hockey fans, there is nothing worse than an early summer. But if you think it’s the the same old summer as last year, remember this: last year at this time, nobody knew about Fedorov. Last year at this time, you didn’t know if you could trust Bob Probert to cross the street by himself. Last year at this time, Cheveldae was just another apple-cheeked goalie with a lot to prove. Last year at this time, there was no Keith Miller, no Paul Ysebaert, no Keith Primeau, no Brad McCrimmon.

“We began this series with 11 guys who hadn’t ever been in the playoffs,” Zombo said. “Then we got a goalie to stand on his head, and we got goals from our defensemen, and suddenly, everybody is chipping in.

Added Yzerman: “We grew a lot closer over these last two weeks. I know its not a long time, but playoffs mean a lot for unity. You travel together, stay together. The last few weeks I’ve seen these guys more than I’ve seen my wife. These things, these playoffs, they either tear you apart or pull you together. . . . “

He looked around the room, the young faces, the hurt, the passion, the hunger for another chance. Won three, lost four.

“I think it may have pulled us together,” he said. “I think we have something here.”

How long until October?

THEY CAME BACK

The St. Louis Blues became the eighth team in NHL history to recover from a 3-1 playoff deficit by beating the Red Wings tonight. And the Wings became the only team to be victimized twice.
* 1941-42: Down 3-0, Toronto rallied past Detroit in the Stanley Cup finals. The Wings led Game 7, 1-0, on Syd Howe’s goal, but Toronto scored three unanswered goals in the third period.
* 1974-75: Down 3-0, the New York Islanders beat Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals. Glenn (Chico) Resch replaced Billy Smith as the Isles’ goalie starting with Game 4. New York won Game 7, 1-0.
* 1986-87: Down 3-1, the Islanders beat Washington in the Patrick Division semifinals. Pat LaFontaine ended Game 7 at 8:47 of the fourth overtime.
* 1986-87: Down 3-1, the Wings beat Toronto in the Norris Division finals. The Wings won the final games, 3-0 (at Detroit), 4-2 (at Toronto) and 3-0 (at Detroit).
* 1987-88: Down 3-1, the Capitals beat Philadelphia in the Patrick semifinals. Before winning Games 5, 6 and 7, the Capitals had never won a game in which they faced elimination. Game 7 went to overtime.
* 1988-89: Wayne Gretzky capped his first season in Los Angeles with a first-round comeback from down 3-1 in the Smythe Division against his old team, Edmonton. The Kings won Game 7, 6-3, in LA.
* 1989-90: The Oilers, down 3-1, turned the tables the next season with a first-round comeback against Winnipeg in the Smythe. Former Wing Mark Lamb scored the winner in Game 7, a 4-1 decision at Edmonton, and the Oilers went on to win the Cup.

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