A great beginning turned into a sorry end for the Ducks, who burned up the NHL in the early weeks of this lockout-shortened season but were too burned out Sunday to put up much of a consistent challenge to the inspired Detroit Red Wings.
What should have been a memory for the ages — a Game 7, a defining moment every NHL player craves — evolved into a dispirited 3-2 loss for the second-seeded Ducks, who were a step slower and a split-second behind the seventh-seeded Red Wings most of the night.
"I don't think anybody expected to come up short," Ducks winger Bobby Ryan said. "I think we were all coming to the rink tonight very confident in ourselves and very excited about where this could take us. It's a pretty low-morale group now, that's for sure."
BOX SCORE: Detroit 3, Ducks 2
Corey Perry knelt in the neutral zone for several seconds after the final buzzer, his face a mask of disbelief. Teemu Selanne, the certain Hall of Fame winger who will be 43 in July and might have played his final NHL game, didn't get off the bench in the final minute. Like his team, he had little left at the end.
"I don't have any answers," Selanne said when asked about his future. "Obviously it's a big decision. Best to clear my head."
This much is sure: The club-record winning percentage of .688 the Ducks set this season was forgotten as they went along the traditional series-ending handshake line at the Honda Center, giving congratulations to Detroit instead of receiving good-luck wishes.
That club-record 13-game home winning streak they rode for nearly two months was forgotten too. Home ice wasn't much of an advantage Sunday, not with the usual loud contingent of Red Wings fans cheering for their favorites and drowning out the locals.
Not that the Ducks gave their fans much to get excited about after pulling even at 1-1 in the first period on a goal by Long Beach's own Emerson Etem. Not even three minutes later, the Red Wings scored a short-handed goal and added an even-strength goal in the second period on a backhander by an assertive Valtteri Filppula to take a 3-1 lead.
Francois Beauchemin was credited with a power-play goal with 3:17 left in the third period when his pass toward the slot caromed off the foot of Detroit's Jonathan Ericsson and past Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard, but the Ducks had no comeback left.
"We really did feel we had a lot of the games in the series and played better, but we lost three in overtime," forward Andrew Cogliano said.
"This is tough to swallow. I thought after winning the Pacific Division, I thought we would go on another roll. We were looking to do much better things. It's pretty disappointing."
Not just for the Ducks, but for hockey fans in Southern California.
Had the Ducks beaten Detroit, they would have faced the Kings in the second round, and what a spectacle that would have been.
With the Lakers and Clippers long done and the Dodgers and Angels struggling, the Ducks and Kings could have hogged the local sports spotlight.
That series didn't have to happen for hockey to take root here: The sport is embedded on the youth level and among fans who have seen the Ducks win the Stanley Cup in 2007 and the Kings claim it last year.
But a playoff series would have taken loyalists' passion to another level and might have roped in casual fans to accelerate the sport's growth. The carrot was dangled in front of the Ducks and they let it slip through their gloved fingers.
Instead, the Kings will face the San Jose Sharks in a series that could start as soon as Tuesday. It will be an all-California series, but not the one that should have happened.
Where did the Ducks go wrong?
Perry, two seasons removed from being the league's most valuable player, had no goals and only two assists in this series. That's one more point than goaltender Jonas Hiller earned.
Selanne had only one goal. Ryan had two. Their defense had holes, and as a team they couldn't muster the leadership and will to prevail.
"We deserved better than this," Selanne said. "That's hockey."
For the Ducks, that was hockey for this season.