It ended in crushing disappointment, but ultimately, this isn't about how the Red Wings finished. It's about what they may have started.

They traveled a long way in a relatively short time — and not just back and forth to Anaheim and Chicago. Go back a year to the aftermath of a first-round playoff loss, to all the uncertainty and pending changes. It was fair to ask then where the Red Wings were headed.

We have a much better idea now, and the trajectory is turning upward. They made the playoffs, beat the second-seeded Ducks in a Game 7 on the road and lost to the top-seeded Blackhawks in an overtime Game 7 on the road. In a sense, the Red Wings skipped over a rebuilding year, and a dangerous transition has become a doable transition.

These were the Green Wings with all their young players, and if green means go, they went after it. But it's one thing to launch an unexpected underdog ride, and another thing to return to the top of the league.

To make the jump from Green Wings back to Red Wings, they have work to do.

General manager Ken Holland has proven his worth many times, and now gets another prime shot. Along with Mike Babcock, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Jimmy Howard, the Red Wings have such a competitive core, you're tempted to take it for granted. But nobody makes the playoffs 22 straight years, and few teams show signs of such a quick recovery.

The Red Wings rebuilt their mid-level depth with a half-dozen rookies, but now comes the difficult task. They need to find more top-end players, through free agency or trades, or from within. Zetterberg and Datsyuk do it all but can't do it forever. Howard carried the Red Wings at times and was victimized by defensive breakdowns.

When you have a 3-1 series lead and blow it, expectations shoot up, and there's no sense dimming them now.

"I think we can be a way better team, and we need to be better if we want to be in this position consistently," Babcock said. "We want to do it not just by working, but by being good enough. I coached a team in Anaheim that was a lot like this team, wasn't projected to be very good. But we got ourselves in and kept getting better."