For most of Sunday afternoon, the Detroit defenseman stood as an uncommon hero, with Lilja's first playoff goal -- at 6:13 of the second period -- looming as the potential winner until there were 47.3 seconds left in regulation in this pivotal fifth game of the Western Conference finals.
But after dominating the Anaheim Ducks for more than 59 minutes of regulation play, the Red Wings could not close the deal. Scott Niedermayer's power-play goal with the Anaheim net empty glanced off defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom's stick and toppled over netminder Dominik Hasek's shoulder to tie the score at 1-1. Then, after Detroit squandered an overtime power play, Lilja's worst nightmare came true.
Carrying the puck from behind his net just past the midway point of the first overtime period, Lilja was confronted by Anaheim forward Andy McDonald. The attempt to clear the puck past McDonald slithered off his stick, leaving Teemu Selanne to swoop up the gift and send a backhand over a sprawling Hasek to give the Ducks a 2-1 victory and a surprising 3-2 series lead with Game 6 Tuesday in Anaheim.
"I was trying to cut the net, and Selanne was on my tail. And he hooked me a little bit and I stepped inside and I didn't think McDonald was going to come as quick as he did. He came at me and laid his stick on the ice," Lilja explained patiently, surrounded by a throng of reporters in the Detroit dressing room.
If there's anything that is a bigger draw to the media than a hero, it's a goat. It is the nature of the business -- the desire to probe that which is most unfortunate or disastrous.
All of which 6-foot-3, 230-pound Lilja clearly understands.
"It's a pretty short trip between the hero and disaster. It happens," Lilja acknowledged.
How did he feel when he saw the puck going over Hasek and into the Red Wings net?
"What can I say? Pure anger," said Lilja, who literally broke his stick in two in his hands after the mishap. The moment perfectly captured the emotion of the entire Detroit bench.
If you could draw a line between effort and chances and worthiness and victory, this series would be over. The Red Wings have been that much better than the Ducks the past three games. Yet there is no such line or mathematical formula by which winners and losers are determined. That is why the Ducks, outshot 34-18 through regulation, are the ones poised to advance to the Stanley Cup finals against Ottawa while the Wings stare into the playoff abyss.
More from Game 5
• Veteran Teemu Selanne was asked where his overtime winner at the 11:57 mark of the first overtime period ranked on a personal level.
"Well, probably the biggest one," said Selanne, who was pointless through the first three games of the series before collecting five points over the past two games. "Hopefully the biggest one is still coming, but obviously this felt so good."
• For at least a period on Sunday, the Ducks managed to do what they said was crucial to their success -- stay out of the penalty box. But after taking just one minor in the first period, they took four straight in the second period, two more in the third and one in overtime.
"I think, at one, point we had two shots for the period. We took four straight penalties and it really taxes a lot of people that are penalty killers, your defense, and then your goaltender. Again, we can't continually do that," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. "But we've survived that tonight."
• After being praised by many media outlets for his play in Games 3 and 4 in Anaheim, Detroit forward Todd Bertuzzi was nailed to the bench through most of the last half of Game 5.
The big forward played just 1:35 in the third period and not at all in overtime. Bertuzzi and linemates Daniel Cleary and Robert Lang were often under extreme pressure early in the game, most notably when matched up against Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner. Kris Draper took Bertuzzi's place late in the game.
• Scott Niedermayer isn't known as the most comical or lighthearted of players, but he offered a good one when asked if he thought his tying goal would have gone in if it hadn't deflected off Nicklas Lidstrom's stick. "Well, I was going to put it off the crossbar and in," Niedermayer quipped.
-- Scott Burnside
Whether either team is deserving of where each stands is totally moot.
"That's the way it goes in the playoffs. Even if you're playing well, you can lose games," Detroit captain Lidstrom said. "That's what happened tonight, I felt. You just have to bounce back. You have to take the good things with you that we did and put the game behind us and be ready for Game 6."
Unfortunately for the Wings, the good things they did -- limiting chances, taking the play physically to the Ducks, keeping the Anaheim power play at bay (the Ducks were 1-for-5) -- were overshadowed by their failures.
For the first time in this series, Detroit did not score a power-play goal, this in spite of four straight opportunities in the second period, including 35 seconds of 5-on-3 hockey. Dating back to Game 4, a 5-3 loss in Anaheim, this marks three straight lengthy 5-on-3s the Wings have been unable to convert.
In all, Detroit was 0-for-7 on the power play, including an overtime opportunity provided by a Travis Moen hooking penalty. A goal on any of those opportunities likely would have meant the difference between winning and losing.
"I think we owned that game," Lilja said. "It's just we couldn't get the puck into the net."
If Lilja learned the hard way about traversing the narrow path between the hero and the damned, Selanne crossed the other way just as quickly.
Through most of regulation -- like the rest of his teammates -- Selanne had been anonymous. He had no shots in regulation. But with the team's best player, netminder J.S. Giguere, on the bench for an extra attacker, Selanne chipped in an assist on the Niedermayer tying goal, then went to his memory bank to come up with the sweet move on the winning goal.
"Everything happened so quickly. You don't have really time to plan anything. But obviously over the years I've been practicing that move so many times that it just came in my mind and I knew I would have to get upstairs because he [Hasek] goes down all the time and he covers all the bottom," Selanne said. "So it was -- it was great to see that go in."
One of two things will happen in Game 6.
Either the Wings with their depth and their veteran experience will continue to outplay the Ducks and get justly rewarded with a victory that will force a seventh game in Detroit on Thursday. Or the odds will catch up with them and they will pay the ultimate hockey price for having squandered precious opportunities against a team that has been given new life and has lots of room to be better.
"I don't see it that way," offered surprisingly upbeat Detroit coach Mike Babcock. "My belief in this group is we keep coming. It didn't go the way we wanted here tonight on the scoreboard. But it's not like we've come out and laid two eggs in a row here. I thought we played pretty well. You keep doing good things and it turns. Dom's ability in the net, we go in there and relax and play. I think that's the big key for us."
If Babcock is counting on his team's resilience to prolong its playoff life, his counterpart, Randy Carlyle, was praising his own team's resilience on a night that looked better suited for disappointment.
"Things don't go quite the way you'd like them to go throughout the hockey game and you're still in it, down one goal. They've had the ability to reach back, and they're the ones that should be credited for it because a lot of things didn't go our way tonight and there's lots of room for improvement," Carlyle said.
"In the end, we found a way to get it done. There's been no quitting in this group whatsoever right from the beginning, early in September in training camp, right through to tonight."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.