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 Down and out? 
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Down and out?

Agony for Lilja, desperation for Wings

May 21, 2007

BY MITCH ALBOM

FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

"It's a pretty short trip between hero and disaster."

-- Andreas Lilja, after the Red Wings' 2-1 overtime loss

And then came a whistle.

One hundred seven seconds left. The time it takes to run to the fridge. Less time than a TV commercial break. One hundred seven seconds. If the Red Wings survive that, they win Sunday afternoon, 1-0, they are favorites for a Stanley Cup finals, they have two chances to grab one clinching victory.

And then came a whistle. Interference. Pavel Datsyuk. In the old days, you'd never get that penalty that late in this kind of game. But those were the old days. Now Datsyuk skated to the penalty box, and the Ducks' goalie, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, skated to the bench. Suddenly, it was six skaters to four. An empty net on one side. A desperate defense on the other. One hundred seven seconds.

The puck was dropped.

One hundred. Ninety. Eighty. Seventy. The crowd was standing, screaming, tense. The Wings were blocking, but not clearing. Chris Chelios tried to whip the puck the other way. Couldn't get it all. Johan Franzen almost did -- but the puck was stopped by an Anaheim player.

Sixty. Fifty. The puck came out to Scott Niedermayer, who wound and fired. Forty-nine. Nicklas Lidstrom, the best defenseman on the Detroit roster, maybe the best in all of hockey, did what great defensemen do, he got his stick down to block the shot.

Forty-eight ...

The puck hit the stick shaft and flew up in the air. It kept going, fluttering like a caffeine-laced butterfly, over the top of a bewildered Dominik Hasek and into the net before the goalie could make even a late swipe with his glove.

Goal! Forty-seven seconds left. Officially, 47.3 on the clock. You couldn't draw that shot in a laboratory. Hit stick, fly up, go over goalie? Forty-seven seconds?

The game was tied -- but many felt lost. Franzen threw his stick against the wall. Fans in Joe Louis Arena exhaled and went silent. Forty-seven seconds.

On such moments do playoffs turn.

The agony of overtime

"I thought we were still optimistic going out there for the overtime," Lidstrom would later say, but captains have to say that. Your eyes said otherwise. The Wings, to start the overtime, looked as if they were skating around a cemetery. They took some shots. But it should surprise no one that the game ended on a fluke play, and the fluke went Anaheim's way -- much as the flukes went Detroit's way in a similar game against San Jose in the previous round.

"Momentum changed for us," Anaheim's Teemu Selanne would say of the game-tying goal by Niedermayer. "We started believing even more we could come back."

And Selanne proved it. With eight minutes left in the first overtime, he pestered defenseman Andreas Lilja as Lilja cleared the puck from behind the Wings' net. Lilja put his stick down to control the puck, but here was Anaheim's Andy McDonald in his way, and Lilja whiffed on controlling the puck, and Selanne, the Finnish superstar who has waited a long time for a moment like this in the playoffs, stole the black biscuit from behind, whirled and had nothing between him and Hasek but a decision.

Dom made his. He went down.

Selanne made his. He shot high.

Guess who guessed right?

"I knew I would have to get upstairs because (Hasek) goes down all the time and he covers the bottom," Selanne said. "So it was great to see it go in."

Shades of 2002?

Well, maybe great for him. But terribly deflating for the Wings, who have now lost two straight games in which they were the dominant team. In Game 4 they couldn't convert on two five-on-three power plays, and on Sunday they couldn't convert on any power plays, couldn't capitalize on dominating shot numbers and couldn't clear the lousy puck when they most had to.

And now they face the most daunting challenge of all. Two must-win games. The first on the road. Win or go golfing.

"We are down, 3-2, but we have been down, 3-2, and come back before," Hasek said.

At first, I had to think about that, because the Wings have not been down 3-2 this season. But then Hasek added two words -- "against Colorado" -- and you realize that is the well the Wings are drinking from now, past experience, the last run at the Stanley Cup, five years ago. It's a risky move, because the stars they most need to help them today were awfully young when that happened: Henrik Zetterberg was not yet on the roster. Pavel Datsyuk was in his rookie year. Other current Wings weren't even in the NHL.

But that is all the Wings have now. History. They should have had the last game and they should have had this one. They should be moving on to the finals against the Ottawa Senators. Lilja, a 31-year-old journeyman, should have been the hero of this story for his second-period goal, the first playoff goal of his career.

Instead, he makes the story as a goat -- the guy who let the puck get away and the game go with it.

"Can you compare this feeling to anything else that's happened to you in your career?"

"No," he said.

How could he? How many journeymen go from star to star-crossed so quickly?

"It sucks," he said. "... We've just got to put this behind us and win the next game. That's all there is to it."

Actually, there is much more to it. More to the tepid power play. More to the missing killer instinct. More to the defense. More to the activity in front of the net. There is much more to it. But Lilja is right. It's a short trip from hero to disaster. As short as a stolen puck. As short as a quick shot. As short as ...

One hundred seven seconds. It should have been over. But as Hasek said of the Ducks: "With that team it's never over."

Now they have to say the same about the Red Wings.

Or it will be.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch "The Mitch Albom Show" 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch "Monday Sports Albom" 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

Copyright © 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.

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May 21st, 2007, 10:39 am
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