DENVER — With all the voltage being fed into this Colorado-Detroit hockey clash, maybe it’s no surprise the power blew in McNichols Arena less than an hour before they dropped the puck. Talk about a sputtering entrance. For a while, the whole place was on auxiliary juice. Lights were out in the lower-level tunnels. All four chillers that cool the ice were out. TV reception was gone in much of the building. The poor radio announcers were stuck using telephones to broadcast. The air was hot and moist, the ice was soft and the fans seemed to have big, wet towels over their faces.
At times, during the first two periods, the place was so quiet you could have yelled for a player to pass you the puck.
This was the NHL Western Conference final we’ve been waiting for?
Well. It was the Red Wings and the Avalanche. It was Shanahan and Yzerman and Vernon and Fedorov against Sakic and Forsberg and Roy and Lemieux. At least I think it was them. They had their uniforms, if not their moves, their speed or their vigor. But then, playing in soup can do that to you. Soggy ice. Dim lightbulbs. For a series it had touted as Big Time Sports, the NHL came off looking rather rinky-dink.
Pardon the rink pun.
But good drama means knowing how to finish — despite your theater. So the Wings and Avs came out for the third period and scored twice within the first three minutes. And the fans woke up. And the energy increased. And, folks, we had ourselves a hockey game.
And then we had a bad sense of deja vu. Here came a fast break by the very fast Avalanche players — who make Pat Riley’s Showtime Lakers look as if they wore cement boots. Boom, boom, boom. A terrific setup pass by wondrous Joe Sakic, a rifle assist by evil Claude Lemieux and a quick death score by omnipresent Mike Ricci.
Avalanche 2, Wings 1.
“They don’t need many chances to cash in,” sighed Brendan Shanahan.
In fact, that would be all they needed. The rest was just a portrait of Wings frustration — a deja vu of its own. It was Sergei Fedorov at point-blank range, smacking the puck off of Patrick Roy’s stick, and Vladimir Konstantinov slapping a dead- sure shot off of Roy’s body, and Martin Lapointe
digging and digging and finally chipping the puck free from Roy’s skate — only to have the whistle blow with the puck an inch from pay dirt.
The pundits were right. This game had less to do with fighting than finesse. Oh, there were a few scuffles and a few rabbit punches and a few angry glares. But mostly, this was about who could skate away from tight, holding defenses and finally put the biscuit in the basket.
Colorado did it twice. The Wings did it once.
If it makes you feel any better, the electricians didn’t have such a good night, either.
A ton of hype
“Did you feel you let a winnable game get away?” someone asked Shanahan, after the Wings outshot the Avs, 35-19, but still went in a one-game hole in this emotional best-of-seven series.
“Yeah,” he said, “but that’s playoff hockey. Sometimes it works the other way, too. It was a tight game, and I guess we all knew the referees and the NHL brass would be watching every move we made.”
Naturally. The way these two teams had been pitted against each other, you’d have thought they’d been rivals for 30 years, not one. The Detroit and Denver newspapers both put the game on the front pages. “BAD BLOOD!” read one Denver headline. “THE FEUD RESUMES TONIGHT” read another. You half expected the players to come out with guns, not sticks.
The funny thing is, neither of these teams is particularly rough or dirty when they’re not playing each other.
But after March 26 — the fightfest at Joe Louis Arena — everybody was a little bloody. The Canadians. The Americans. The Russians. The Swedes. Nonfighters such as Peter Forsberg and Igor Larionov. Hey. Even the goalies had stitches.
And so Thursday night became one of those turf wars, where nobody is neutral. Denver fans may have only had a hockey team for a year, but they’ve quickly learned how to add “RED WINGS S —!” to every cheer in the building.
Still, for all the noisy buildup, the first period was almost like a quiet backstage pass, where you watch the famous men work and you realize they are, after all, only men. The Wings and Avs could do little more than feel each other out, and, more important, feel out the ref. They quickly learned that the whistles were on a short tongue. Within the first three minutes, Fedorov drew a hooking penalty from Mike Keane, but moments later, Shanahan was whisked away for roughing — on the face-off!
It was like that all night. Add the heat of the referee’s focus to soft, mushy ice, and little wonder the Wings seemed to be battling uphill. “With bad ice, it takes lots more steps to go the same distance,” Kris Draper said. “It wears you down.”
This is a disgrace for a game as big as this. Anyone in the NHL can tell you this arena — built for basketball — is a time bomb for hockey. In the hallway after the game, commissioner Gary Bettman clenched his jaw.
“We don’t ever want this to happen again,” he said. “I think we all agree Denver needs a new building, the sooner the better.”
Can they finish it by Saturday?
A blown opportunity
Not that the Wings can blame this loss on the power outage — unless you mean their own.
“I thought after we scored, we sat back for just a bit,” said Shanahan, who gave the Wings a 1-0 lead that lasted all of 27 seconds. “You can’t relax against this team — not for one, two or three minutes.”
He’s right. Joe Sakic — who seems to always rise to the occasion — found the right spot on the ice and pushed a quick shot through Mike Vernon’s legs. Five minutes later, he made that great pass to set up the Ricci goal.
And suddenly, we were back to last year, with the Wings unable to stop the Avalanche stars when they had to, and unable to solve Roy when they had the chance. Even their six power- play chances were dry. Colorado has stopped 51 of 54 power plays in the playoffs.
“We’re not walking out with our heads down,” said captain Steve Yzerman.
“It was one of those games that can go either way.”
But it went the Avalanche way. And so the Wings begin this series just as they began last year’s — down a game. Still, there were reasons to be optimistic. They played well. No one got hurt. Vernon was generally excellent. And all they realistically hoped to do out here was win one game. If the teams play a similar contest Saturday, the Wings have a chance.
Of course, so do the Avs. But no one said this would be an easy series.
They did say the lights would work.