ST. LOUIS — Won three, lost four. Those will be the final numbers hung on Detroit hockey this year. 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, when Brett Hull found the puck on his stick and nothing but open ice between him and his destiny, which is to murder opposing teams, 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 lead in this first-round playoff series, lose it, then come back and win it anyhow.

All that ended with Hull taking a pass from (who else?) Adam Oates and skating alone 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 crowd exploded, the organist blasted into “The Saints Go Marching In” and the funeral began for Red Wings, who had fought the good fight. They would make one last surge, a final thrash against death, a furious charge in the closing minutes of the game, closing the gap to 3-2. But they were fighting uphill, against the crowd, against fatigue, against a team that would not surrender one more goal. And finally, the horn sounded, the season died.

Won three, lost four.

“You know, for a while there . . . ” you could hear Wings fans sigh, as they turned off their TV sets. Yes. For a while there, it was within grasp. Had the Wings lasted those final 21 seconds in the second, had they taken their 1-1 tie into the third period, they might have found enough magic to beat these Blues in their home arena. Or had they tied it up in the third, made it 3-3, the pressure might have shifted. The Blues, a heavy favorite, might have thought, “Hey, wait a minute, we’re supposed to beat these guys easily.” And the Wings might have thought, “Hey, wait a minute. We don’t have to lose, do we?” On such momentum shifts are championships won.

Didn’t happen. Hull kicked the door open. His teammates kicked it shut. couldn’t wait to get back out on the ice. 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 and all they needed to escape this surprisingly difficult playoff series.

“For a while there . . . ” Detroit seemed to sigh.

Won three, lost four. 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 the boys of winter head now 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 will expect a little more? “When our fans were booing us at home in Game 6 the other night,” Shawn Burr had said before the game, “that was kind of bad, wasn’t it? I mean, they didn’t figure us to even be there and then, when we don’t score, and they booed 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 kill. Bill Laimbeer of the Pistons once bought a scythe to the locker room before a deciding playoff game against the Boston Celtics. He held it up to his teammates and said, “When you’ve got the snake down, you chop its head off. Let’s do it.” That is the attitude of experienced killers 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, worried that if they didn’t do it this night, they would have blown a great chance. “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 night, they almost found themselves. Yes, the game began as if played on a tilt, with Detroit skating uphill, St. Louis down. And yet the Wings hung in there. They earned a goal from Racine, who put in a long rebound of his own shot. And Cheveldae withstood a furious barrage from the Blues in the second period — during one power play they fired three shots in nine seconds, all of which he stopped beautifully. And then there were 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 series may be that Detroit went the final six games of a seven-game series without a goal from Steve Yzerman or Sergei Fedorov. Considering that, it is remarkable they were even in it.

And so the series ends, a whale of a series, really. Didn’t it feel like the Wings were playing these guys for a month? 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.

Yes, it ends in defeat. But if you think it’s the the same old summer as last year, well, think of 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, Tim Chevelde 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.

Earlier in the day, the phone had rung in Burr’s room.

“Person-to-person call,” the operator said.

“Yes?” said Burr.

“Hello, Shawn?” came the scratchy voice. “It’s the Brow.”

The Brow, as everyone in Detroit knows, is the ultimate fan, the odd, bespectacled former school teacher who wears the funny tie and hat and screams himself hoarse at every game.

“You fired up?” he croaked.

“Yeah, Brow. We are.” said Burr.

“You guys flying in after the game?”

“Yep.”

“I’ll be there waiting, you know, win or lose.”

“Thanks.”

The rest of us could take something from that. Won three, lost four is not the world’s biggest disappointment, not for such a young hockey team, not against the St. Louis Blues. The fact is, for the first time since in several summers, there is good reason to look forward to the fall, hockey-wise. Won three, lost four, showed a lot of potential. That’s worth something, don’t you think?

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