OT HEARTBREAK: WINGS LOSETHE OILERS DRIVE HOME CRUEL TRUTH

The puck came flying off of Jari Kurri’s stick and pierced the dream smack dead in the heart.

“They lost?” the crowd at Joe Louis Arena seemed to whisper, a dying whisper, after the Red Wings fell to Edmonton, 4-3, on Kurri’s wrist shot in overtime of 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 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. 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 — glory, glory
— just one little bitty puck away.

“We had so many chances in the overtime,” said Bob Probert, who converted two such chances earlier in the game to tie the score. “It’s always so close against these guys. I don’t know. Our shots just didn’t find their way into the net.”

Kurri’s did. That is reality. Edmonton leads this series, three games to one. And all the Wings horses and all the Wings men may not put this dream back together again.

They lost? They lost.

This is one of the toughest losses I’ve ever had since I’ve been a coach,” said Jacques Demers, his face drenched, his eyes bloodshot, after the game finally ended in an eerie silence.

“We had great chances. What can I say?”

What can anybody say? The temptation is to spout the old cliche “Nobody loses in a game like this,” as stupid as that sounds now. What a final hour of hockey! 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.

There 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.

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

And in overtime, Probert again, whacking from the right corner of the crease, just hitting Fuhr in the pads.

And yet it was Kurri, who found himself open to Glen Hanlon’s left, flicking the puck past the goalie, then raising his hands in triumph.

“What were you thinking when you saw the puck go in?” someone asked Hanlon afterward.

“I was just . . . I don’t know . . . I just skated off,” he said.

They lost? They lost.

So close. They’re all so close. And yet Edmonton has now won seven of the last nine playoff games against these Wings with precisely that same brand of close hockey. “They never panic,” said Steve Yzerman, “they just keep coming.”

And yet, except for that final killer by Kurri, the Wings took the full measure of these defending Stanley Cup champions. The Oilers had taken Games 1 and 2, as expected, and the Wings had taken Game 3 with a wave of emotion (the first game at home, the return of Yzerman from a knee injury) that was not likely to come again.

So this was the proving ground, Game 4, the game that showed whether the Wings had a real crack at the rainbow or were merely sliding along. And remember this if nothing else: The Wings stood even at the end of 60 minutes. Dead even. What killed Detroit 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.

So the 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.

They lie.

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