Hardly! Here's how the West was lost
May 23, 2007
BY MITCH ALBOM
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Like dripping ice, like descending smog, there was karma all over the building Tuesday night -- and still the Red Wings almost shook it off, they fought to the choking finish. But in the end, it was covered in feathers and spoke with a beak. And by the time the sun set in the West, it had already gone down on Detroit.
Duck, duck, gone.
Say good-bye to the 2007 dream. It ended with a fury, like two mad heavyweights plundering each other. The Wings battled back from 3-0 and 4-1, closed it to 4-3, and with three minutes to go, they unleashed a relentless passion that makes fans swear hockey is the greatest sport of them all. Swarming. Charging. Pavel Datsyuk had a swipe at the goalie and another swipe. Denied! Dan Cleary had a swipe and another swipe. Denied!
Dominik Hasek was pulled. The puck kept coming, this close, that close. At a whistle, Todd Bertuzzi and Chris Pronger were clenching like boxers, heaving, you half expected a referee to yell, "Break it up! Keep fighting!" The Wings skated as if the last lights of their lives were in those final minutes, and, in truth, for this season, they were. But when the horn sounded, the Wings were panting, they were one goal short, and the season was over.
"Right now it stinks," said Kris Draper, after the season-ending Game 6 defeat. " ...We did so many things in this series. We battled to the end. We just didn't find a way to win a couple more games."
And winning is how playoffs are measured. Never mind all that talk about Detroit playing better than Anaheim in this series. Never mind Game 4 (shoulda won) or Game 5 (shoulda won). There is only what you capture and what you lose. And for all the talk about great Detroit effort without a victory, there remained a wait for a great Anaheim effort with a victory. That came Tuesday. Detroit won the final minutes. But Anaheim won all the minutes before it.
Duck, duck, gone.
A painful summer
"We threw everything at them in the third period," captain Nicklas Lidstrom said in the locker room. "I think it says a lot about us reaching as far as we did. I think a lot of people didn't think we were capable of doing that."
But, just the same, for Detroit, the playoffs end in the Western Conference finals. And now comes the worst kind of summer, because for hockey players the worst kind of summer is one spent in the shadows of what could have been, might have been, if only a play here, a moment there. That is the summer the Wings face now, two victories and one series short of paradise.
The beards come off. The gear gets packed. And the brains start churning. What if Mathieu Schneider hadn't gone down during the playoffs? What if Niklas Kronwall had been available? What if they had taken advantage of Pronger's being suspended and two 5-on-3 chances in Game 4? What if they had cleared the puck with less than two minutes left in Game 5?
What if they had turned it on in the first two periods Tuesday they way they did in the third?
"You're gonna go nuts if you think about that too much," Henrik Zetterberg said. "What happened, happened. Of course we could have done more to win Game 5. But we didn't. We had to win this game and we didn't do that either."
Here's the truth about what ifs: like ice, they melt. What remains are the results.
Duck, duck, gone.
A Game 5 hangover
The truth is, you knew this night was trouble early on, before the traffic-plagued Southern Californians fans could fully fill the building. Anaheim came out hopping, got the first four shots on goal, drew the first penalty and scored the first goal less than four minutes in, a typical playoff job, a hard shot by Pronger that skirted off the skate of Rob Niedermayer and danced behind an out-of-position Hasek.
It was 1-0 -- a shorthanded goal to boot -- and that was probably the worst thing that could have happened to the Wings. Had they scored first, it might have done wonders for scrubbing away the residue from Game 5's haunting end.
"We came out back on our heels," Draper admitted. "And they were still flying with momentum from Game 5."
If you ask me, that's when this series was actually lost, Sunday afternoon, back in Detroit, when a penalty left the Wings two skaters down with less than two minutes left. A victory turned to a tie. A tie turned to a defeat.
And if you don't think these Wings were skating with that in their heads Tuesday night, you haven't been around sports. Sure, they will all say they forgot about it. That's what they are supposed to say. But look at how they played -- beginning with the overtime in Game 5 and all through the first two periods of Game 6. A step behind. A bit less aggressive. It wasn't that the Wings played badly. It was that Anaheim played better. The balance of power changed.
And then, let's say this, too: This was a night when the Super Glue melted, when Hasek was human and reverted to flopping too often for comfort. Three of the four Anaheim goals came with Hasek sprawled on his back. But in his defense, where was the defense? Take a look at the replays of the Anaheim goals. Most began out front, straight on, where your rebounds and your ricochets are most likely to disrupt a goalie. The Wings, by contrast, tried too much of their offense from the sides in this series, where a goalie can see and stop more easily.
It's simple: In the playoffs, it's about traffic in front of their goalie and defense in front of yours. Tomas Holmstrom is brilliant at this. But the Wings need more of that from other players.
And, come on, admit it: Jean-Sebastien Giguere was amazing.
But admit this, too: The Wings never quit. They came so hard in that third period -- harder than the first two combined. Coach Mike Babcock has reason to be proud of this team's effort. The Wings could have folded it up and been thinking about the airplane ride home. Instead, they were charging to the final horn. It was maddening, furious, desperate hockey, with shots that just missed and sticks that were an inch away from payday.
"They scored early ... got momentum and energy and we weren't handling the pressure they were putting on us," Babcock said. " ...I thought we got ourselves back in the game. The fourth goal ended up being a killer for us."
The pros and cons
And so the first season of the No-Yzerman-No-Shanahan Era comes to an end in Detroit, with many good things and memorable highlights: nice development by the team's young guns and a return of perhaps the cagiest goalie to wear a Red Wings uniform. And before any critical analysis, we must acknowledge this Detroit team went farther than any since the Stanley Cup-winning squad of 2002.
But while the amazing Lidstrom proved that being shy and humble is no reason you can't inspire, fans still are left hungry for more in the playoffs from Zetterberg, who scored a goal in the first game of this series, and Datsyuk, who scored one in the second. Neither scored again until Game 6 was out of reach Tuesday night -- then they got productive.
Yes, it was great that they led a comeback. But it was, if we're being honest, too little, too late. If you are going to advance, your big guns have to fire. Your big guns must draw blood. The skill of these two players is hugely apparent. But the productivity has to match the wow factor, or all you have left is highlight footage -- none of it involving a Cup.
But that still can come. They still are young. This is a team that had to mix young and old players together, not always easy, and had to play the toughest games without its Nos. 2 and 3 defensemen. And let's recognize that playoff hockey by nature is such a dicey proposition, a bounce here or there, a hot goalie to shut you down (and the Wings certainly faced that with Giguere).
Babcock has improved this team. Its regular season wasn't as good, but Detroit made it two rounds deeper in the playoffs, and that is how you measure things. The conference finals is a plenty respectable finish for a team in transition like the Wings. And remember. Anaheim is hardly a slouch. The Ducks, too, began the year with sights set on the Stanley Cup.
Their vision is still alive. Detroit's is over. In the end, the Wings will be haunted by a puck hitting a stick, by a giveaway in overtime, by blown power plays, and by one game in which Hasek was human and three games in which Giguere was not.
Duck, duck, gone. The Wings should be proud. They can keep their heads up. But next year, they should tilt them a little higher, up where the Ducks are flying now.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
. Catch "The Mitch Albom Show" 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). www.freep.com/mitch
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