So they changed the goalie and they’re back on home ice and they are saying the right things about patience and experience. Here’s the cold truth: The legacy of these Red Wings is on the line tonight at Joe Louis Arena. If this team of All-Stars, assembled on Mt. Olympus, paid for with chests of gold, should nonetheless be slashed in its Achilles’ heel by the lowly Nashville Predators, history will not be kind. A hockey paradise will have been squandered.

Let’s face it. While the Red Wings have brought much joy and Stanley Cups to Detroit, sports is a what-have-you-done-for-us-lately business. And if the Wings lose Game 5 tonight and proceed to drop this series, three of the last four years would be first-round exits.

Heck. You don’t need future Hall of Famers for that. You don’t need Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman or Nicklas Lidstrom for that. You don’t need All-Star goalies such as Dominik Hasek and Curtis Joseph for that. You don’t even need Manny Legace for that! You can cobble together a band of lowly paid, hungry young players and scrape and claw your way into an eighth seed. That way, if you exit early, people can say, “What did you expect? They did their best.”

You can’t say that about these Red Wings right now. This is not their best. Not six goals in four games. Not early deficits. Not a loss of composure. We know upstart teams rev it up in the postseason, but the same should hold true for champions. You don’t just sit there and say, “Well, Nashville’s an eighth seed but they’re gonna be tough.” You say, “Hey, WE led the league in points. We’ll show you what tough is.”

Instead, after four games, these two teams are even, it’s a best-of-three series, and the Wings are singing familiar laments — “We have to stop pressing to score.” . . . “We have to do the little things.” . . . “We have to stay calm.”

We’ve heard it all before.

“Am I surprised that we’re 2-2 now?” Yzerman, the captain, said in the aftermath of the Game 4 shutout. “No. I’m disappointed, but not surprised.”

For the Wings to keep their lofty reputation, there can be no more disappointments. And no more surprises.

Manny out, Cujo in

“I’m putting Curtis in because we want to get a win, I want to change some things,” coach Dave Lewis said Wednesday in announcing that Joseph would replace Legace in net for tonight’s pivotal contest at Joe Louis Arena.
“Curtis has got tremendous experience, he knows how to deal with the pressure and this is a perfect situation for him to be in.”

Well, I’m glad it’s perfect for someone. But the truth is, goaltender is just the easiest position to switch, not the one that always makes the difference. You could argue that Legace actually played better than most of his fellow Red Wings. The goals he surrendered have been — for the most part — awfully tough to stop. When the opponent is streaking down the ice, all alone, puck on stick, you can only do so much.

What would truly change the Red Wings’ luck is if some Nashville productivity rubbed off on them. The Wings are taking batting practice out there — and hitting them all into someone’s glove. Eighty-three shots in the last two games — and one goal to show for it?

OK. That’s not normal. But it’s also not new. The Wings, playoff after playoff, seem to go through a stretch like this, and soon every star (which on Detroit means almost anyone with a stick) thinks he can make the perfect shot to break the slump.

Never works. Inevitably, these lulls are broken by a weird bounce, a ricochet or a misdirect. We know this. They know this.

Why must they torture themselves with the same problem year after year?

Same old, same old

Who knows? But I can tell you this. The fatigue is showing. The feistiness that you once saw when the Wings fell behind an inferior opponent is withered now. It has turned more to annoyance and frustration. They know they are better. But they knew they were better than Anaheim in 2003 and Los Angeles in 2001. This is no longer fun. It’s no longer a challenge. It’s simply a drag. And if you think this is getting old for you? It’s getting really old for the Wings.

“I can’t help it if I touch a guy and he goes down,” lamented Brendan Shanahan, echoing a Detroit sentiment that the referees are too quick with their whistles in this series and the Predators are too quick to lick the ice.
“But hey, we can’t let that get to us, like we did (in Game 4). We have to calm down, get our own game back.”

That game is winning. Detroit does it in the regular season. And obviously has done it in many postseasons. But the Wings’ reputation as winners will change if they fail in this series. It’s that basic. True, even the best teams don’t win all the time. The Yankees are proving that in baseball. But there is a difference between dropping Game 6 or 7 of the World Series and getting swept in the first round by Anaheim — or blowing a 2-0 series lead to Nashville.

You can make any excuse you want: doing that back-to-back is inexcusable.

“We’ve got to be better, no question, everybody in the room knows it,” said Joseph, who emerges into a huge spotlight tonight. “We all have to elevate our games to another level.”

How about just the level fans — and management — have come to expect from a team this talented? Nashville? Whodathunk? But make no mistake. This series is simply and undeniably a tipping point for the Red Wings’ legacy, the difference between remembering them, decades from now, as a success or a failure.

Sorry to be so blunt. But the Wings created this moment. It’s theirs to fix or fumble.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

PLAYOFF HISTORY

Since missing the playoffs in 1990, the Red Wings have won the Stanley Cup three times and have been eliminated in the first round five times. Their first-round series with Nashville is tied at 2-2.

1991: Lost to St. Louis, 4-3, in first round.

1992: Lost to Chicago, 4-0, in second round.

1993: Lost to Toronto, 4-3, in first round.

1994: Lost to San Jose, 4-3, in first round.

1995: Lost to New Jersey, 4-0, in Stanley Cup finals.

1996: Lost to Colorado, 4-2, in Western Conference finals.

1997: Beat Philadelphia, 4-0, in Stanley Cup finals.

1998: Beat Washington, 4-0, in Stanley Cup finals.

1999: Lost to Colorado, 4-2, in second round.

2000: Lost to Colorado, 4-1, in second round.

2001: Lost to Los Angeles, 4-2, in first round.

2002: Beat Carolina, 4-1, in Stanley Cup finals.

2003: Lost to Anaheim, 4-0, in first round.

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