BACK FOR SECONDSOSGOOD’S SHUTOUT PUTS RED WINGS FOUR WINS FROM CONSECUTIVE STANLEY CUPS

In the end, you could no more stop them than you could stop the moon. They rose to the occasion, they rose to the challenge, and finally — when the last seconds ticked away and Chris Osgood threw his hands into the air and leaped into a hug from Larry Murphy as a lonesome octopus came flying onto the ice — finally, they raised the roof. They were back to the big stage, the Stanley Cup finals, and they burst through the curtain with a certain swagger, as if they knew it would happen, as if they’ve been here before.

And of course, they have, and that is the difference. If you want to know why the Red Wings came out Friday night as if storming the last bridge out of hell and banged and slammed and dug and dazzled and never stopped until the final horn sounded on a game that was so complete it took your breath away — well, here it is. They know what they want. They know what it takes. They know how to do it.

Turn out the Stars, their party’s over. The Red Wings delivered a game so thorough, so dynamic, that if you painted it you’d need fluorescent colors, if you wrote it, you’d need two boxes of paper. They ended the series the way they began it, with a 2-0 shutout. And more important, with a message that says, “Hey, folks, we’re the defending champs, remember? You still have to get through us.”

“What did you say to Ozzie when you hugged him?” Murphy was asked after the Wings won their third conference finals in four years.

“I didn’t say anything,” Murphy answered, smiling. “And neither did he. It was a moment, that’s all.”

He laughed. “We had a moment.”

Didn’t we all? Cue the floodlights. Raise the curtain. For all the endless drama of the NHL playoffs, only one favorite is still standing as we head into the finals, and it’s Detroit. There were no 90-foot goals Friday. No bad ricochets. And no Dallas Stars complaining that they weren’t getting any
“luck.”

Instead, at one point, Ed Belfour, who over the course of this series tried to turn a few Red Wings from studs to mares, was left pondering his night with his head in his hands, as fans sang his name, “BEL-FOUR, BEL-FOUR.”

Shut ’em out, send ’em home. Turn out the Stars, their party’s over.

And Detroit’s is just beginning. You want to know how deep this team’s determination ran in Friday’s Game 6? The Wings played best when they were down a man. They scored their first goal shorthanded. They had some of their best chances shorthanded. They made some of their best defensive stops shorthanded. They had a vampire’s thirst for challenge, and they thrived on it.

“We rebound well,” said captain Steve Yzerman, who, in politely accepting the Clarence Campbell Bowl, was already in his pre-finals mode of cautious understatement.

Rebound well? Uh. Yeah. Like a Super Ball. If Wednesday night was the series’ low point, then Friday was its all-time high. Just playing in the Detroit arena, where outside temperatures were appropriately, for hockey, in the low 50s — not the low 100s as they were in Dallas — seemed to energize the night. In fact, just getting off the Texas Slurpee they call ice was like graduating from go-karts to a speedway. Was it hockey, or the Showtime Lakers? The Wings were back to flying. Back to leaving their opponents reading the names on the back of their jerseys.

And that’s when they do their damage. It began — fittingly — when the Wings were down a man in the first period. Darren McCarty beat opponents to a Yzerman pass, came down the ice and, with just one man on him, waited until he spotted his advantage, a teammate. It was Murphy, who took the cross-ice feed, curled inside and put a backhander through Belfour. Score: 1-0.

That wounded the Stars. The next goal put them on the critical list. Second period, Sergei Fedorov took a dump pass from Murphy and shot as he came across the middle. There was no deflection. There was no blocking. There was just the puck, Belfour, and embarrassment, as the rubber dribbled through him and left him hiding his head in disbelief.

Turn out the Stars, their party’s over. Or, in honor of the fans in Texas, we could put it in a cowboy poem:

Red Men fight back

Dead men wear black.

Mr. Wings goes to Washington.

See ya, Jack.

Cheers for Ozzie

Now, if we’re going to dole out individual kudos, we must begin with the first man onto the ice and the last line of defense. I’m talking about Chris Osgood, the goalie.

Ready? You can say you’re sorry now.

Critics who panned Osgood’s surrender of an overtime gimme in Game 5 must have missed the first 58 minutes of that contest, and surely were stunned at what they saw Friday at the Joe. Because here was no shrinking violet, no thumb-sucking little kid. Here was a young man growing up before our eyes. Sure, Osgood talked bravely after the embarrassment of Wednesday night. But only his play would prove the starch in his backbone.

“I’m looking forward to this game,” he’d said, the way a prospector says he looks forward to gold, “it’s gonna be big. It’s gonna be fun. I thrive on games like this.”

Does anyone want to argue now? Osgood — who recorded two shutouts in this six-game series — was everywhere Friday, blocking them high, low, on his knees, on his stomach. He took a two-on-zero break and stopped Mike Keane’s scrape shot while on the ice. He took a Mike Modano whacker from six feet away and blocked it into the air. He took a hard shot by Jamie Langenbrunner — who put the game-winner past him on Wednesday night — and said, “Sorry. Your free pass is up.” The puck shot innocently off of Ozzie’s blocker.

He went left, right and flat-out for glory. As they say in the NBA, it was his world. He took all the devil’s stones thrown at him since that last second in Dallas Wednesday night and he threw them back through the looking glass.

“It used to be people didn’t talk about me at all,” he said afterward, wearing a cap, “and now, I really don’t care what they say. That’s as plain as I can say it. I know, and my teammates know, that I’ve been playing great since the second game of the Phoenix series. Goals will go in. But I’m just trying to get us to win.”

Remember, folks, Osgood is one of the few Red Wings on this roster who didn’t really contribute in last year’s miracle run. He has a championship ring, but when he slides it on, it can’t feel the way he wants it to feel. He wants one that comes with memories, his memories.

“More than any single player on this team,” said Brendan Shanahan, “Ozzie wants to win this thing.”

He is four victories away from a proper sizing.

Red, white and through.

Remember Vladdie

Of course, this is a team thing. Which is what made Friday so satisfying. There wasn’t one guy in red who didn’t come out sweating and come off panting.

Flat-out for glory. Here was McCarty playing half the night without his helmet, because collisions kept knocking it off. Here was Fedorov slamming Derian Hatcher into the boards, even though the Stars captain oversizes Sergei by four inches and 25 pounds. Here was Yzerman digging at everything that moved, and Murphy playing so much younger than his years. Here was Jamie Macoun decking Modano so hard that Modano lay on the ice as the action continued around him, half in pain, half in disbelief. When he got up, he was covered in ice shavings, so thick you could barely read the back of his jersey. He wobbled off to his bench.

That was the white-out.

The red-out followed.

As Murphy said, they had a moment. A group motivated by a desire to return to glory, and to persevere against the tragedy that six days after last year’s Cup took two of their family away from the fold.

“Were you thinking of Vladimir Konstantinov and Sergei Mnatsakanov tonight,” someone asked Fedorov in the locker room afterward.

“I think of them all the time at moments like this,” he answered. “There is no stronger motivation for me than to celebrate a win this year for longer than six days.”

Well said.

Bring on the Caps

So now, one last round against the surprising Washington Capitals. And as Yzerman warned, “We haven’t won anything yet.”

Still, there is something quite impressive about the trip to date. In advancing to the Stanley Cup finals, the Wings have become the NHL’s most powerful hype-shredding machine. They took on the Phoenix Coyotes, who were supposedly “a very dangerous first-round opponent.” But after dispatching the sunny boys in six cloudy games, nobody was making much of the Coyotes anymore.

Then came the St. Louis Blues, who everyone said was “the team no one wants to play” and “the hottest team at the end of the season.” Oooh. Scary. But the Wings stuffed the Blues star players — where was Brett Hull? What happened to Grant Fuhr? — and Detroit won in six. And no one was that impressed with St. Louis anymore.

Then, of course, came the Stars. “Best team in hockey” we were told. “Hottest goaltender.” “Toughest defense.” “Home-ice advantage.” But after Friday night’s finale, no one is talking about the Stars anymore.

And that’s the beauty of this Red Wings team. The Wings approach each series like a lumberjack approaching a redwood tree. Sure, the object is big, and you’re liable to hit a few knots. But you know the job, you have experience, you have perseverance and you have some really strong buzz saws. You roll up your sleeves and get started, believing, always, that no matter how long it takes, that tree will fall.

They have all fallen so far. Keep that in mind. By the time the finals begin Tuesday, the hype-masters will tell us why the Washington Capitals are really the team that could be poison for the Wings. There will be reasons and stats and personalities and analysis — and they will all miss the point.

Here is the point: This isn’t about the other team. This is about the Detroit Red Wings. They are the defending champs. They are the only team that any franchise should be measuring itself against. It is their Cup to keep or lose, and they have enough of everything to keep it against anybody. Their only challenge is to live up to their potential.

“Was tonight worth that shot to your groin?” someone asked Martin Lapointe of a cheap hit from Belfour.

“Oh, yeah, it was worth it,” he said. “I’d even take another one.”

No need.

They had a moment. We had a moment. And something tells me there are a few more on the way. Turn out the Stars. Light up the stage. The Wings are coming for a second helping of Stanley.

Is this fun, or am I nuts?

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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