TORONTO — The starting goalie, Sam St. Laurent, was lying flat on his back inside the net, his twisted right knee causing horrible pain. The backup goalie, Greg Stefan, who last game was so ill he could barely move, was now tugging on his mask, preparing to come in. The backup to him was . . . was . .
.

There was no backup to him.

“How serious do you think Sam’s injury is?” someone asked Red Wings general manager Jimmy Devellano, who was pacing nervously inside the Maple Leaf Gardens press box.

“I can’t worry about that now,” he said. “I have to find us another goalie.”

How strange had this series become? How desperate had things gotten in this Detroit-Toronto playoff? We were already in Game 6, the players were swinging madly at each other, the crowd was smelling blood — and Jimmy D. was looking to sign a goalie in the middle of the first period.

From anywhere.

Where would he go? Into the stands? With a sign that said: “GOALIE NEEDED: IMMEDIATE OPENING. APPLY BY RAISING YOUR HAND.” Maybe he would. It was weird and funny and tragic at the same time. What if Stefan went down? Who would play? Really, who would play?

“The rules say it’s got to be someone on our reserve list,” Devellano mumbled quickly. “Dave Dryden. I’m going to ask Dave Dryden. I’ll sign him to a contract right here.”

“You’re kidding,” someone said.

“Who would you put in?” he snapped.

Dave Dryden? The part-time consultant? The Toronto school principal who hadn’t played in the NHL in eight years? Dave Dryden, who was dressed in a suit and sitting in the auxiliary box, watching the game? That Dave Dryden? The new backup goalie?

“I’ll sign him for one game, $2,000,” Devellano said. “That’s all I need to do.”

He darted down the hall. Only the result was perfect

Do what you have to. Then do what you can. Here was a perfect story for a classically imperfect evening, one which, as most people now know, ended in a 5-3 Detroit victory, a playoff clincher, finally, finally, killing the snake that was the Maple Leafs with a surge of proud, defensive hockey.

Never mind that fate kept slipping the Wings a mickey. Never mind that St. Laurent, called up one day earlier from the minor leagues and tossed into the fire of his first-ever playoff game, was history after 10 minutes of action, following a collision with two players. Never mind that Stefan, smitten with flu, hadn’t eaten in two days, or that Glen Hanlon, the first-choice goalie, was in Detroit with a groin injury.

Never mind that the Toronto crowd was a sea of fickle venom at one point, showering the ice with litter.

Never mind any of that. Do what you have to. Then do what you can. The Wings closed in around Stefan like a wagon train, limiting the Leafs to six shots on goal in the second period while protecting a 2-1 then 3-1 lead. And Stefan responded with the sweet adrenaline that comes when you have no choice, you have to be good. He made a diving save on an Al Iafrate shot, and stopped an Ed Olczyk screamer with a leg, a stick, and finally a leaping catch.

“What did you think when Sam went down?” Stefan was asked afterward.

“I just said, ‘the hell with it, that’s it, we’re not going back for Game 7,’ ” he said.

And so when Shawn Burr flicked a wrist shot past goalie Allan Bester — Wings lead, 4-1, with 19:20 to play — and he gave that mighty-happy fist shake, you began to sense that indeed they had done just that, the mountain had finally moved, that everything that could go wrong had already gone wrong, and all that was left was the right.

“We just were not going to lose this series,” said Wings coach Jacques Demers. “We’d have to hear about it all summer long.”An ‘A’ for adjusting There will be better hockey games. Better played. Better executed. But this was a marvelous performance by the Wings because they were forced out of the norm, backed against the wall, and they did what all great teams must do.

They adjusted.

So Toronto power plays were nullified, and Toronto rallies were nullified, and finally, Toronto itself was nullified, eliminated, and the Wings move on to Round 2, where things can only get, well, calmer. Still, do not forget this one quickly: it was a classic case of one gun in the bullet. And the Wings’ aim was true.

When Devellano asked Dryden to be his backup goalie, Dryden listened, thought about it, then marched out into the hallway.

“Where did you go?” he was asked afterward. “Did you need to get a breath of air? Is that where you went?”

“Actually, I went to call my wife,” he said.

“To ask for her opinion?”

“To ask her to bring my skates.”

Do what you have to.

**

Mitch Albom will sign copies of his book, “The Live Albom” Saturday at Waldenbooks from noon to 2 at Westland and from 6 to 8 at Fairlane.

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