OT HEARTBREAK: WINGS LOSECRUEL REALITY HITS AFTER A CLOSE CALL

The breath came out of the dream in such a gush, it surely rippled the waters of the Great Lakes.

“They lost?” the crowd seemed to moan, a dying moan, after the Wings fell to Edmonton, 4-3, in the biggest, best and most heartbreaking game of hockey to be played in Detroit in 22 years. “How can it be? They really lost?”

They lost. That is the reality. It has to be, because only reality could be that cruel. So close. The Red Wings had been so close in this hot, draining

playoff Game 4 — a game that could have tied this playoff series at 2-2. They had reached overtime, sweat dripping from every fan, strength dripping from every player. What was it they said? Eighty-five degrees at ice level? The damn stuff was fogging up! And each push into the Edmonton zone brought the same thought, each teasing pass, each near-miss shot, each charge down the ice with glory just a little bitty puck away.

“One goal,” the crowd seemed to chant.

One goal came. But it was by Edmonton’s Jarri Kurri, a slap shot, with an assist by Esa Tikkanen.

Over. 4-3. That is reality. Edmonton leads the series, three games to one. All the Wings horses and all the Wings men may not put this dream back together again.

They lost? They lost.

How sad. What a letdown. The temptation, of course, is to use the old cliche, “Nobody loses in a game like this,” as stupid as that sounds now. What a final hour of hockey! Can there ever be anything more exciting? Here were the Wings, tied, 3-3, and tasting blood, somebody’s, Edmonton’s or their own, skating as if the next goal would determine who lives and who dies. How close did they come in regulation alone to winning this thing? Count the heart attacks.

Here was a shot that trickled past Grant Fuhr (does that ever happen?) and only a last-second swipe by Kevin Lowe saved it from sliding into the net.

Here was Bob Probert, already the nightmare for Edmonton, having scored the second and third Detroit goals, charging in on a puck and hitting the post — he hit the post! — and Fuhr fell on it and lay down flat on the ice, as if to say, “God help me, is this attack ever going to end?”

Here were the Wings, with the undying voices of 19,873 fans ringing in their ears — how many years of bad hockey were in those voices, desperate now for glory? — and they kept coming, kept coming, like a dream you can’t escape until finally, the only thing that can kill a dream came off Kurri’s stick, a quick stab of death that sent everybody home wet and unhappy.

They lost? They lost.

Here were the Wings trying to do unto Edmonton what Edmonton had done unto them — win two at home — and establish a foothold on the high ridge of the Stanley Cup. After all, until this game, it had all been sweet conjecture. The Oilers had taken Games 1 and 2, as expected, the Wings had taken Game 3 with a wave of emotion (the first game at home, the return of Steve Yzerman) that was not likely to come again, at least not for those reasons.

So this was the proving ground, the game that showed whether the Wings had a real crack at the rainbow or were merely sliding along.

“This is the most disappointing loss I’ve had since I’ve been a coach,” Jacques Demers said.

Indeed. And what kills Wings fans this morning is that, despite leading the series comfortably, three games to one, Edmonton has not appeared to be that much better than the Wings. But this Oilers team didn’t put all those banners on their ceiling with scotch tape. When they get a break, they score on it, and it seems to take their opponents twice as much effort and twice as much time to accomplish the same things.

The Wings could take every single thing the Oilers threw at them Monday night.

They just couldn’t take it all.

So the two teams go back to Edmonton now, where the Oilers will feel as confident as a man who found the noose untied at his execution, and where the Wings saw their tank finally read empty last May. There is the carcass of the 1987 dream still up there, somewhere along the highway to the Northlands Coliseum, an ugly reminder of how cruel reality can be. They say nobody loses in games like this, but they lied, somebody does. Damn it all, say the fans. They lost? They lost.

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