BACKSLIDING

Chris Chelios had a small grin on his face after he bumped a Dallas player and stepped to the bench. Then he turned, saw what was happening, and his grin disappeared. Then his face dropped. Then he shouted an expletive.

And that pretty much summed up Saturday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena.

What began with a grin ended with a growl. What began with hopes of printing Stanley Cup finals tickets, ended with more plane tickets to Dallas. The Red Wings did not lose this series Saturday; they simply lost their chokehold, their momentum and most of their advantages.

No more perfect at home in the playoffs. No more curse on Marty Turco’s head.

And no more inevitability.

This series is 3-2 now, “on set” as they say in tennis, and anything can happen, and that’s a shame for Detroit. Because as stars go, these Stars were fading, flickering to nothing, about to vaporize into a big black hole.

Now it’s Stars light, Stars bright. Dallas has flickered back, and the red fog over the franchise is lifting. You let a team get up at your own risk. Having had the Stars down, 3-0, it is up to the Wings to finish what they started.

Or it’s the start of their finish.

“I lost sight of the puck,” Chelios lamented afterward of that fateful play in the second period. “I thought the guy was gonna play it off the boards and I ran into him. It was a bad change and it cost us a goal.”

That goal – the game-winner – came seconds later, when Joel Lundqvist streaked ahead with the puck and fired it past Chris Osgood – a shot perhaps Osgood needed to miracle-stop on this kind of a day. He couldn’t. Brett Lebda was there to defense it. He couldn’t, either.

A grin turns to a growl.

And a coronation becomes a series.

Because let’s face it. We had Saturday afternoon marked down for “play” and Saturday night marked down for “party.” The Wings were supposed to come out flying, whack a few fast ones past Turco and count down the seconds until the NBC film crews arrived to tape the Stanley Cup finals profiles.

Instead, it’s back to Texas for a Game 6.

Stars light, Stars bright.

Lots of shots, few goals

“I thought we were a little uptight when we started,” coach Mike Babcock said after the 2-1 defeat in these Western Conference finals. “… You want to clinch so bad (sometimes) it doesn’t happen for you.”

It’s not as if the Wings didn’t have chances. They fired 39 shots to Dallas’ 21. They had point-blank rips by Dan Cleary, Tomas Holmstrom and Brian Rafalski. “We missed the net 19 times,” Babcock said. “We had ample opportunity.”

And you have to wonder if some of that wasn’t Turco creeping into their heads. Although Turco was quite mortal in the first three games, he has reverted to the form that got Dallas almost fairly lights-out in Game 4. And he was better in Game 5. When Turco plays with confidence, so do the Stars. Their defense complemented him Saturday, shutting down the normal passing lanes for the Wings, turning Detroit’s crisp, fast-forward game into a zigging-and-zagging version that only scored once.

On a power play.

“That’s the best I felt in this building probably ever,” Turco said after winning his first game as a pro at the Joe in 13 attempts. He also fed both Dallas goals with passes, getting an assist on the second one.

You don’t think that makes a team confident in front of him?

To paraphrase the country song, “You picked a fine time to get good again, Marty.”

Stars light, Stars bright.

Detroit stars need to shine

“We had way too many odd-man rushes tonight,” Osgood said, “… the most I’ve seen in a long time. … Then again, both” Dallas goals came on “line changes. That can’t happen.”

Well, there are a lot of things that can’t happen – not if you want to win a championship. One of them is you can’t let teams off the mat. It is true, hockey is different than basketball or baseball. A weird bounce here or there and games can be stolen. You will see more NHL teams down 3-0 win a game than you will NBA or MLB ones.

But the Wings are moving in some worrisome directions. Their focus isn’t as tight, their passing isn’t as sharp, their superstars did not get it done on Saturday – Pavel Datsyuk hasn’t scored since his hat trick in Game 3, Henrik Zetterberg had just three shots, Holmstrom had two penalties and wasn’t his usual pesty self at the net, and Osgood is not the better goalie right now – and, oh yeah, they have two goals in the last two games.

And nobody is talking about the missing elephant in the room, Johan Franzen, but the guy WAS the Wings’ best player until he disappeared.

So do not be surprised if this thing comes back to Detroit for Game 7. And do not be surprised if the Wings win it. Hockey playoffs are shifting things, and momentum undulates like waves. Several Red Wings players were reminding the media that nobody expected them to be up 3-0 on Dallas. Or as Babcock put it, “I don’t think anybody, when we started this series, thought it would be easy.”

But they had it at “easy,” and they let it slip away. Now gliding has turned to trudging, swallowing has turned to chewing, and an open passageway has turned into a door that must be kicked down.

So be it. Stars light, Stars bright. The Wings have two chances to snuff these guys.

Let’s hope they only need one.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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