ALL SMILESYES, IT WAS AN OVERWHELMING WIN, BUT RED WINGS STILL MUST FINISH THE JOBSATURDAY

MITCH ALBOMBrett Hull loped a shot into the crease, like a Little League coach throwing a grounder to his shortstop — and here came the shortstop, Sergei Fedorov, flying in and tapping the puck so deftly and quickly that by the time the red light flashed he was already circling away, hands in the air, rocking back on one skate like a man without a care in the world.

Nice job. Now finish it. Thursday may have finally been the happy rainstorm Red Wings fans dream of — four goals in the first period, en route to a Game 5 shutout victory — but it won’t mean a thing if they ain’t got that sting.

Great teams take the fires of a victory like this and use them to burn the other guy’s building.

Nice job. Now finish it.

“The last thing we want to do is take a breath and find ourselves in a Game 7,” said Mathieu Dandenault, who scored a goal in the Wings’ 4-0 victory over Vancouver, their third straight in this playoff series, which they lead, three games to two. “Right now, Vancouver’s probably down because they had a 2-0 lead on us. You don’t want to give them anything to look forward to.”

Precisely.

Remember, the Wings are not in these playoffs to prove they can beat the Canucks. They are in them to win a Cup. The less blood, sweat and pain exerted in this first-round series, the more they have for another. All the goals in the world Thursday night mean nothing if they lose on Saturday, and must face a stress-soaked, all-or-nothing Game 7, which is never more than a crapshoot.

The Wings don’t need their season to come down to that. It took them a while to get going, but they seem to be going and going good.

“I think we found it tonight,” Fedorov said.

Found it and flaunted it.

Now finish the job. And take a nap.

Four quick goals

Which doesn’t mean that you, the fan at home, can’t relish what happened Thursday night at the Joe.

Are the Wings on their plane yet?

Good.

Now. Between you and me, that first period was a geyser, a burst dam, an exploding radiator on a smoking hot highway. Goals were shooting out like balls from a tennis machine.

Here was Fedorov, on a power play, slapping a long rebound off goalie Dan Cloutier right back at him: 1-0.

Here was Fedorov again, the Wings shorthanded now, weaving through defenders, dishing off to Dandenault, who fired through Cloutier’s legs: 2-0.

Here was Hull, with that wonderful leaning wrist shot — he looks as if he’s posing for a trading card — and the shot once again came off Cloutier and landed in front, where Boyd Devereaux slapped it home with no resistance.

Score: 3-0.

And bye, bye, goalie.

Three minutes later, Fedorov did his shortstop thing against replacement goalie Peter Skudra, and that was that: 4-0.

This all happened, by the way, in a period in which the Wings were penalized three times to Vancouver’s one. That should have caught the interest of one red-faced gentleman in an upper-level seat, the president and general manager of the Canucks, Brian Burke.

For some unknown reason, in a news conference Wednesday, Burke went off on the Wings and the referees. And I mean, went OFF.

He insisted that his team was getting terrible calls, that his players were being mugged, that Henrik Sedin was getting “his face washed” by a “scrum” of Detroit players, and that behemoth Todd Bertuzzi was “wearing three red sweaters” because the Wings were so busy tackling him.

He also accused Dominik Hasek of flopping like a fish, and reminded officials that his goalie, Cloutier, was easy to identify, because he was the one in pads, standing up.

Actually, Brian, on Thursday, Cloutier was the one without a mask, sitting down.

But why quibble over details?

Perhaps Burke is mad over Pistons fans booing Canada’s national anthem. Perhaps he simply woke up on the wrong side of the border. Whatever the case, we should accept what he says with great care and sensitivity, because he is, with all due respect, out of his mind.

Bertuzzi is being mugged? Isn’t that physically impossible? Like the Lilliputians dunking on Gulliver? As for Sedin getting his face washed? He must have been pretty clean, then, when he scored the game-winner in Game 1. And if the refs are so slanted toward Detroit, why three straight penalties in less than five minutes? You did see that, right, Brian? In the first period?

Or did you have your head in your hands?

Enough. Finish this. Let the man go on vacation.

Plenty of superstars

Speaking of that, what a difference a week makes, eh? (I threw that “eh” in there to show we have no hard feelings toward Burke.)

Last weekend, vacation was a real but dirty word, with fans wondering if the playoffs were a party to which the Wings had lost the invitation. They hadn’t won all month. They were down two games to zip. Hasek was at his lowest point of the season.

And now? Well. They are better. That’s all. Better. Not perfect. Not home free. And they should never be relaxed. If the L.A. Kings can win four straight against the Wings, the Canucks can win two.

But better, yes. Hasek has a rhythm, and was superb in stopping 25 shots Thursday night. Fedorov is flying. Hull is finding ways to be precious without scoring. The defense is tightening, the penalty killing is sharp. And we needn’t bother commenting on Steve Yzerman. He speaks for himself.

Yet having said all that, Detroit is just one game up in a series that already has taken longer than Wings fans wanted. Yes, three straight victories is momentum, but the best teams use momentum as a knife to cut the opponent’s oxygen.

“We have to come out strong on Saturday,” Yzerman said. “We still hold our breath with (Vancouver). You don’t want things to change — and they can change quickly.”

Nice job. Now finish it. Thursday was fun. Thursday is over. Everyone should just forget it.

Except maybe Burke.

Let’s send him a tape.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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