IGOR Larionov always had been a quiet man, but this was a different silence. Here, in the year he would turn 40, he was playing out the final days of his contract. An offer he once deemed “insulting” had been pulled off the table with nothing offered in its place. He was facing an ugly truth, one all athletes face sooner or later. His reputation was exceeding his productivity.

Few people spoke of him anymore, except to say, “Why hasn’t he done more?” — and it was not an unfair question. Larionov, one of the greatest hockey players ever to skate from Russia to America, hadn’t scored a playoff goal since June of 1998. In these 2000 playoffs, he was averaging less than 14 minutes of ice time a game. No goals. One measly assist. Three shots in six games — and more giveaways than take-aways. The quiet now surrounding him was no longer about privacy, or the traditional reverence to an intelligent warrior.

Igor Larionov had become a non-factor.

This is an irony not wasted on any Detroit fan. For here in the NHL’s Western Conference semifinals, the Red Wings themselves were in danger of becoming non-factors as well. For all their Stanley Cup glory of ’97 and ’98, the Wings were knocked out early in last year’s post-season by four straight losses to Colorado. And this year, in the second round, they were in an 0-2 hole to the Avalanche again. One more loss, and you could take out the roster and begin scratching names of the expected goners for next season.

Larionov would likely be among them.

Which is why, for Wings fans, what happened less than 10 minutes into Monday night’s Game 3 was particularly sweet: Larionov, pitched just outside the goal crease, saw a puck ricochet into the air. The shot, struck by Martin Lapointe, had come off goalie Patrick Roy, and now it seemed to hang in the air, flipping like a coin trying to determine someone’s fate, heads, tails, heads, tails.

If that was Larionov’s future, he wasn’t waiting to see how it landed.

Swat! Goal! Wings score — the first time in this series they have scored first, the first time Colorado has had to play with any sense of urgency.

“What Igor did on that shot was like trying to hit a knuckleball — with two guys on each side of you hitting you with bats,” Brendan Shanahan said, after Larionov’s goal sparked the Wings to a 3-1 victory, their first against the Avalanche in their last seven playoff tries. “That’s a really tough shot.”

And the lift from that goal was immeasurable, intangible, as much cerebral as it was physical.

Which is pretty much the book on Igor Larionov.

Still here.

A proud player

“I’m a forward, I’m supposed to score now and then,” Larionov said with a grin, standing later in the post-game locker room. There was dried blood and new stitches in his right ear, thanks to a mean elbow-check into the glass by Colorado’s Serge Aubin.

Larionov shrugged off the injury. “Five stitches,” he said. “That’s all.” After the roller-coaster of this season, it will take more than that to throw him.

After all, this is the season of Igor’s discontent. His drop in production — just two goals in his final 42 regular-season games — has been more than a passing concern. He has long been an integral part of the Wings’ success, changing the team with his smarts and style almost from the moment he arrived in 1995. He was the linchpin of the famed Russian Five, a Meadowlark Lemon in the hypnotic weave those players skated. As late as last year, he led the team in assists.

If center Steve Yzerman was blue-collar hero, and center Sergei Fedorov was a white-hot flash, then Larionov was the dean of the university, the bespectacled genius.

“The Professor” they called him. He had seen everything, experienced everything, and was still talented enough to teach younger players all that out on the ice. So significant was his effect on other Russian players, that when he left last year’s playoffs with a hand injury, many felt it was the end of Slava Kozlov’s contributions as well, because the younger Russian relied so much on Larionov’s influence.

This year has been everything the other years weren’t. The Wings made him a two-year contract offer early on. They felt it was fair. He found it unacceptable. They pulled it. After that, he said in an interview that he felt he was playing his last season for the Red Wings.

“Do you still feel that way?” I asked him.

“I do,” came his answer.

He said it with no malice. Larionov is not a malice guy. He has been through too much. In coming to the NHL, he and former Wing Slava Fetisov were at the forefront of the Russian wave into the league. They shattered the barriers, and every ex-Soviet player in the league today owes something to them. Larionov was once a flaming star of the Red Army team. He centered the famous KLM line in the ’80s, between Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov. He won gold medals in 1984 and 1988 Olympics, and has two Stanley Cup rings to fill out his trophy case.

Now he could be looking at the end of his Detroit run.

“I don’t think about that,” he said. “I don’t read newspapers. I don’t listen to rumors.”

And the notion that he’s gotten too old?

“I pay no attention. Unless 20,000 people in the stands start cheering,
‘You’re too old! You’re about to die!’ I don’t think I’ll be aware of it.”

Still here.

A remarkable effort

Now, obviously, the Wings did not win Monday night simply because No. 8 had a nice game. The goaltending of Chris Osgood was spectacular. He stopped 22 of 23 shots, and withheld all but one of the Avs’ five power-play chances. With Osgood razor-sharp, the rest of the Wings showed more spring in their step. They avoided dumb penalties. They kept the pressure on Roy. They outshot the Avs, 36-23.

And it all means nothing. Ignore the cliche talk about the Wings being back in the series, the Avs being back on their heels, the pressure shifting, the momentum swinging, the confidence rising, the ooze flowing, the lava melting, whatever other seismic drifts are supposedly detected by analysts with too much time on their hands. The Wings haven’t done anything but win one game.

And even winning another Wednesday night won’t mean anything except a temporary stay of execution. Until they win a game in Denver, this series always will be in peril.

So Monday night was not about momentum shifts. It was, in a small way, about staking a claim. This isn’t just about reputation. This is about skill and heart. The Red Wings still have those things, not that you should have doubted it. And Larionov, a half-year shy of 40, is still here.

“How did you hit that flipping puck out of the air?” he was asked.

“Back in Russia, I was a good badminton player,” he said. “I don’t play much here in Detroit. But in San Jose, I once played an Olympic champion. A Chinese man.”

“How did you do?” he is asked.

Larionov smiled. “He kicked my butt.”

Honest to the end. He may not be here much longer. He may not be what he used to be. But inside every former champion is the spark of how you win. Some of us, before the flipping pucks of chance, will still put our money on the professor.

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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