A RUDE AWAKENING FROM SWEEP DREAMS

THE GENIE went back in the bottle, the glass slipper melted away, and the puck that had been stopping everywhere short of the Detroit net now was finding new ways to get in. Here was the worst of them: Bill Ranford, the Wings goalie, squared to catch a full-view shot, and instead watched it whiz past his waiting glove, like a shortstop who sees the grounder hit a rock and go by his ear.

That goal — Colorado’s fifth of the night — was not off the stick of a star like Joe Sakic or Peter Forsberg, but rather Colorado defenseman Aaron Miller, who scored his first of this year’s playoffs.

The goal before that — with Ranford drawn helplessly out of position — went to Chris Drury, who also hadn’t scored all playoffs.

And the goal before that — which flew between Ranford’s legs — came off the ugly stick of Dale Hunter, a tough guy who also hadn’t scored in this year’s post-season.

Time elapsed for three goals: 135 seconds.

Pop goes the fantasy. On come the lights. Before the Wings allowed any other souvenirs to Colorado, they wisely let Ranford skate off with his dignity — and chest protector — intact. His Cinderella card expired just before 9 o’clock Tuesday night.

And the fairy tale became hockey again.

Nothing wrong with a loss. Unless there’s four of them. The fact is, it has been 11 games and more than 11 months since the Red Wings lost a post-season contest — their last came in the 1998 semifinals against Dallas — and anyone who thought they were going to go unblemished in 1999 was a little crazy.

Not a lot crazy. But a little crazy.

Pop goes the fantasy. And on comes an almost-forgotten feeling. Remember it, Red Wings? That burning in the head? That jumpy stomach? That impatient scowl? It’s called defeat. It tastes like mud.

“You get a spanking, then you wake up and play better,” said Sergei Fedorov after the 5-3 defeat. “Maybe it’s good somebody reminds us how losing an important game feels.”

Exactly. It was a nice thought, an undefeated run, a hockey version of Moses Malone’s “fo-fo-fo” in the NBA playoffs. But invincibility is for comic book heroes. The truth is, you can’t keep winning unless you know how much you hate losing.

Consider Tuesday a reminder.

Lulled by security of home?

“I did my best out there,” Ranford said in the locker room after allowing five goals on 24 shots. “I’m only human.”

Ranford was also only the last line of a Detroit defense that was a step slow, a tick out of sync, a tad short of contact. Combine this with an offense that kept skating into itself, or making impatient passes — not because they weren’t trying but because they were trying too hard — and you have a combination that is not going to win.

Which, as we said, is nothing to be ashamed of. Personally, I thought if any game was likely to be a loss, it would be Tuesday’s. Something about coming home with a 2-0 lead and an undefeated post-season that can make you feel just a little too relaxed. You take a breath. You figure you’re OK, you have destiny on your side. You see your family, you hear the happy fans. And you forget, just for a moment, that the other guys want to win as badly as you do.

And suddenly, boom, you give up a tough goal, then you give up an easy one, then you give up three in a span of two minutes and 15 seconds, and suddenly you’re thinking, “Oh, right. The Colorado Avalanche. They’re a pretty good team, aren’t they?”

Much too good to be swept. On Tuesday, Colorado, a good road team, played smart enough not to beat itself. No dumb penalties. Aggressive offense. Effective special teams. And — oh, yeah — a pretty good goaltender named Patrick Roy, who was brilliant, stopping 44 of 47 shots.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to play with a four-goal lead halfway through the game.

Losing — a little — never hurts

Now, I know what the worry-warts are thinking this morning. The Wings have an issue now. With Ranford’s magic potion needing a refill, do they bring him back Thursday night for Game 4, believing Tuesday was a fluke?

Or do they rush Chris Osgood back into service, despite that fact that he hasn’t played — and has barely practiced — since Game 4 of the Anaheim series?

Or do they yank the tablecloth, yell “abracadabra” and go with Norm Maracle, who, in his first playoff game ever, did a fine job cleaning up, stopping all 12 shots he faced.

“We’re not making any decisions on that right now,” said Scotty Bowman.

My guess is they go back to Ranford. But guessing is also part of the process.

Meanwhile, they regroup. On Tuesday night, in a private box, a happy spectator sat watching the game: Sgt. Christopher Stone, the soldier recently released from captivity in Yugoslavia. He said that in his weeks as a hostage, “a hockey game was the last thing” he expected to see.

But he made it home. Got a standing ovation. And he can tell the Wings something they likely know: You don’t get to be heroes without some suffering and sacrifice.

Now that the fantasy part is over, the hockey part really begins. There is nothing wrong with losing a game. At least nothing that winning the next one won’t fix.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 1-313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM
(760).

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