One goal short.
That will prey on the Ducks' minds, that they had come back from oblivion in March and rallied twice against Detroit on Thursday but fell one goal short of advancing to the Western Conference finals.
The Red Wings' pervasive grit, maybe more than their dazzling skill, was the difference in a 4-3 victory that decided a riveting seven-game series between the last two Stanley Cup champions. The Ducks' resilience, though admirable, could not compensate for that.
Detroit will move on to face the Chicago Blackhawks because Dan Cleary, finishing a play that developed after the Ducks didn't get the puck in deep at the other end, batted a pass from Henrik Zetterberg out of mid-air and beneath goaltender Jonas Hiller with three minutes left in the third period. It was the trump card the Ducks could not match.
"We deserved a better end," Teemu Selanne said. Instead they got a bitter end.
Maybe the end to the brilliant career of Scott Niedermayer, too. The backbone of the Ducks' defense can become an unrestricted free agent July 1; he retired briefly after their 2007 Cup championship and could do so -- for good -- this summer.
"It's possible but I haven't thought about it much. And I will now," Niedermayer said. "We've had a lot of fun here the last few months playing. The team's played well. It's been fun to be here. I'll figure it out now."
He will have the time now, even though the Ducks held MVP finalist Pavel Datsyuk to no goals, held Tomas Holmstrom to no points and scored at least one power-play goal in each game of this second-round series.
They lost because the buoyancy they developed after a series of late-season trades turned their season around was not enough to make up for their lack of a productive second line and those oh-so-vexing lapses in discipline.
"We really jelled as a team and became pretty close and probably had as good a chance as anyone to go all the way," said defenseman Ryan Whitney, who improved the Ducks' transition game and enlivened their locker room after his Feb. 26 arrival from Pittsburgh.
"It's a game of inches. That last goal was kind of flukey and it just wasn't meant to be for us."
For a while, it seemed the Ducks might follow their upset of the top-seeded San Jose Sharks with a dismissal of the defending champion Red Wings. After falling behind, 3-1, the Ducks pulled even at 7:37 of the third period on Bobby Ryan's first goal in nine games, causing the crowd at Joe Louis Arena to murmur in concern.
But then came the stroke they couldn't answer, the goal by Cleary, a grinder who outperformed some of his more talented teammates. Corey Perry's inability to get the puck in behind Detroit's defense led play to turn back up ice. Zetterberg, in the corner, saucered a pass to Cleary. He knocked it down and, Hiller claimed, pushed his pad so the puck squirted over the goal line.
"He didn't even try to hit the puck. He was going for my pad," Hiller said. "I'm down on the ice. He just kind of pushed me in."
Ryan Getzlaf said the play was "a tough call, not something [the officials] can go and review. It's a tough bounce but I'm not going to fault the officiating for anything." He added, "You can't take anything away from Detroit."
The Ducks couldn't take the Red Wings' title away, though not for lack of effort.
"I guess you always think you can do more but you look around the room and how some of these guys battled," Niedermayer said. "There are a lot of guys in here that worked extremely hard so I'm proud of a lot of guys in here, for sure."
Detroit built a 2-0 lead on a first-period power-play redirection by Jiri Hudler and a second-period breakaway by Darren Helm after a Selanne turnover.
The Ducks cut that to 2-1 at 14:50 of the second when Selanne tucked a loose puck in by the left post, but Detroit rebuilt its two-goal cushion at 16:23 when Mikael Samuelsson converted a pass from Hudler.
The Ducks responded with a power-play rebound goal by Perry at 17:12 before Ryan brought them even.
"I think they had a little more depth in the end with their offense and we were a little too much depending on Getzlaf's line," Selanne said.
Selanne has a year left on his deal but hedged about returning, saying he wants to see GM Bob Murray's upcoming moves. Murray will be busy: Scott and Rob Niedermayer can be unrestricted free agents, as can defenseman Francois Beauchemin and center Todd Marchant. Defenseman James Wisniewski is a restricted free agent.
"Good luck to Bob Murray this summer. He's got his work cut out for him," Getzlaf said. "He's fully qualified and he knows what he wants here and I'm excited to see what we bring next year."
Next year began Thursday.
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