OK, so what went wrong?

Why couldn’t the Detroit Red Wings seal the deal? How did this team, so used to applying the choke hold, so adept at squeezing the playoff life out of you–let the Stanley Cup itself slip through their gloves?

It’s easy to sound like you’re excuse-making when you analyze reasons why a team lost a playoff series.

But there needs to be closure, and to get that, there needs to be answers to those one-word questions.

Why? How?

The Schedule
 
NBC won’t ever admit it, but here’s an educated theory as to why the Finals began so soon after the Red Wings dispatched the Chicago Blackhawks in the conference final.

In a case of bad timing, the new, Conan O’Brien-hosted “Tonight” show was set to debut the same week that the Cup Finals would be going on.

The Red Wings finished off the ‘Hawks on Wednesday, May 27. NBC, which had the rights to Games One and Two (Versus had Three and Four), had themselves a quandary.

Knowing all too well how playoff hockey games can lapse into seemingly endless overtime (read: Game Five of last year’s Finals, which went into triple OT), the network no doubt got nauseous at the thought of the little NHL bleeding into Conan’s time slot during his opening week.

So what to do?

Under normal conditions, NBC probably would have allowed the NHL to set Game One for Monday or Tuesday night. As Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said on Media Day (the day before Game One), the Finals matchup was a compelling one; it could have used a few days of hype.

And, as Babcock noted, when you win a series in five games (as Detroit did over Chicago), you normally get a few days off before you have to prepare for the next round.

But with the Conan thing looming, the league had a proposal for NBC: how about if we get Games One and Two out of the way, over the weekend?

Since Versus was slated to carry Games Three and Four, there would be no Conan conflict, so those could happen during the week.

Game Five, carried by NBC, was on Saturday, June 6. Again, no conflict. The network successfully navigated through Conan’s opening week without any possibility of being screwed by the NHL.

The schedule called for three games in the first four days, and five in the first eight.

Bottom line: as the series wore on, the cumulative effects of the Anaheim seven-game series, starting the Finals so soon after Chicago, and the Finals schedule itself, wore the injury-torn Red Wings down.

The “big boys”

Tigers manager Jim Leyland recently expressed concern about his team’s struggling offense. He called out who he referred to as the “big boys” — guys like Magglio Ordonez, Placido Polanco, and Curtis Granderson. Maybe even Miguel Cabrera, to an extent.

The message? Unless they really get it going, then the Tigers will continue to struggle to maintain their fragile lead in the division, if they maintain it at all.

Here’s what happened as the Finals unfolded.

After the first two games in Detroit, both Red Wings victories, the analysis was, “The Red Wings haven’t even played their best yet. The big guns haven’t shown up yet. Just wait till they do!”

The Red Wings lost Game Three in Pittsburgh, on a third period power play goal by Sergei Gonchar.

Everyone said, “The Red Wings haven’t even played their best yet. The big guns haven’t shown up yet. Just wait till they do!”

Game Four turned around in the second period, the Red Wings leading, 2-1. After a 5:37 flurry, the Penguins led, 4-2. They ended up winning by that score. The series was tied, 2-2.

Everyone said, “The Red Wings haven’t even played their best yet. The big guns haven’t shown up yet. Just wait till they do!”

The Red Wings were getting goals from guys like Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Brad Stuart, and Kris Draper. Which was fine, except that the front-line players weren’t contributing.

The Red Wings exploded in Game Five, but it was mainly their defensemen who scored.

“The Red Wings haven’t even played their best yet. The big guns haven’t shown up yet. Just wait till they do!”

Game Six would be with two days of rest after Game Five, which was supposed to help the battered, tired Red Wings.

But they came out flat as a pancake, fell behind 2-0, and lost 2-1.

“The Red Wings haven’t even played their best yet. The big guns haven’t shown up yet. Just wait till they do!”

Game Seven would provide that final vindication; one last chance for the Hossas and Samuelssons and Franzens and Holmstroms and Hudlers to show up. One last chance to wash away, for good, the stench of the first six games of non-productivity from the “big boys.”

You know the rest.

Bottom line: The Red Wings never did “play their best.” The big guns never did show up. Their only goal in Game Seven came from another defenseman — Jonathan Ericsson.

Jordan Staal’s shorthanded goal

You want a turning point? I’ve got one that beats all: the shorthanded goal by Jordan Staal in the second period of Game Four.

The situation: Red Wings leading, 2-1, on a fluky point shot from Stuart early in the period. Red Wings on a power play. The Mellon Arena crowd uneasy. A chance for Detroit to seize a very valuable two-goal lead, which they could very well have turned into a 3-1 series lead.

But Staal changed all that.

He poked the puck away from Nick Lidstrom at the Pittsburgh blue line, outraced Brian Rafalski, and deftly slipped the puck past Chris Osgood, who was awfully deep in his crease.

THAT’S your turning point.

Bottom line: I’m telling you, the series could very well have turned out differently — could have ended a week ago Saturday in Detroit — if Staal doesn’t make that play.

Puck not possessed

As the series wore on, the Red Wings’ famous, vaunted puck possession game deteriorated.

By the end, in fact, it just about had vanished.

Whether due to the Penguins’ adjusting during the series, or the Red Wings fatiguing, the result was that Detroit’s attack turned into shot after shot from the point — very little danger emerged from near Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

Gone was the tic-tac-toe passing, the rink-wide stuff, the cycling deep in the Pittsburgh zone.

The power play, even, was dimly lit by the end.

Babcock admitted, in the series’ aftermath, that his team was “gassed” and “running on fumes” in Game Seven.

He also acknowledged that his team never really got going and that caught up to them.

Bottom line: The Red Wings simply were not the same team that dispatched Columbus, Anaheim, and Chicago.

All that, and the Red Wings still came within inches (a Niklas Kronwall crossbar late in Game Seven) of tying the final game and sending it into overtime.

Anytime you lose by one goal in Game Seven of the Finals, you’ve had a pretty good season.

Not that it won’t hurt this summer, because it will.

After the game, before I headed for the ice to interview happy Penguins, I passed the Red Wings’ coaches room.

Inside, Babcock and his staff and GM Ken Holland, and assistant GM Jim Nill, plus other members of the team’s brass, stood quietly, talking softly. Their faces were drawn. It appeared to me that they looked stunned.

Outside the room, chief pro scout Mark Howe spoke quietly with another front office type. Howe looked numb.

No more game plans to formulate. No more practice. No more videotape to hash over.

No more hockey.

Which would be all fine and dandy, if the Stanley Cup was sitting in that dressing room.

Instead, the Penguins frolicked with it on the Joe Louis Arena ice surface.

But the better team won. Let’s not forget that.

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