DENVER — The dream died in the mountains, a mile above sea level, where the air is thin and it is difficult to breathe. And as cold reality sank in
— one goal behind, two goals behind, three goals behind — you could feel the Red Wings players gasping, suffocating, all the good things they had done this season crashing to earth like a boulder during an avalanche. Or should we say, Avalanche?

Snowed under.

See ya next dream. This one is over, a carcass to be picked apart by the second-guessers, food for the talk shows, grist for the mill. And when all the talk is done, you will still know nothing more than this: The Wings saved their worst for last, played their most inconsistent hockey of the year during the Stanley Cup playoffs, and continued a mystifying tradition of running out of gas when the prize is within reach.

Perhaps the most symbolic moment Wednesday night came when young Kris Draper, who had embodied so much of the fresh-faced hope of this team, was blindsided into the wall by Colorado’s master villain, Claude Lemieux. When Draper finally got up, his face was buried in a towel, so he could not see, several teeth had been knocked out, so he could not smile, and he left the ice, so he could not play. The maintenance crew ran out and shoveled up his bloody ice, tossing it in a wastebasket.

Snowed under.

“It’s like getting your heart torn out,” said a dejected Darren McCarty after the 4-1 loss to Colorado ended the Wings’ season in the Western Conference finals — one round short of the finals they achieved last year.
“It hurts the Wings and everyone in the Red Wings’ family, but we have to live with it, because we’re responsible.”

Where’s the justice in this, Wings fans ask? The oldest curse in hockey loses to the newest town in the league. And instead of the pictures Detroit fans hoped to frame, we get snapshots of disaster, unimaginable just a few weeks ago. Instead of Chris Osgood plucking a save, we get cocky Patrick Roy, scooping the Wings shots Wednesday night and raising them over his head like a matador’s cape. Instead of No. 19 of the Red Wings, Steve Yzerman, shaking a conference trophy over his head, we get No. 19 of the Avalanche, Joe Sakic, having his coming-out party in these playoffs, scoring twice, assisting on another goal, and doing the victory dance himself.

Instead of Scotty Bowman returning to his throne, winningest coach in hockey, we get Marc Crawford, a cast of ”Friends” lookalike, now in the Stanley Cup finals. Instead of octopus, we get a snowball in the face.

In fact, the only thing familiar is defeat. That, Wings fans have seen before. Forty-one years without winning a Stanley Cup. Still the longest wait in the National Hockey League. And as the final seconds ticked away Wednesday night, you could almost see the cursed ghosts descend like dead weight on the shoulders of the Wings, driving their skates deep into the ice, slowing them to a halt, and finally, a surrender.

Blue light. Game over.

See ya next dream. This battle was lost early

Now, for what it’s worth, Wings fans should know that if defeat had to come this season, it might as well come to Colorado. The Avalanche had the second-best record in hockey. Of course, the Wings were first by a mile. But what does that matter? If you knew nothing before these playoffs, you now know this: the regular season in the NHL is to the postseason like elementary school is to grad school.

In six playoff games with Colorado, the Wings could win only two — against a team they had beaten three of four times in the regular campaign.

You want an explanation? Here’s an explanation. Colorado won because its goalie was great, while Detroit’s goalie was only good. Colorado won because its No. 19 played like a superstar, while Detroit’s No. 19 could not.

Colorado won because good players like Adam Deadmarsh and Mike Ricci took advantage of chances and scored goals, while Sergei Fedorov didn’t score enough and often played as if his paycheck didn’t depend on this series — which, sadly, it didn’t. Colorado won because its players stayed healthy, while the Wings opened a M*A*S*H unit.

Colorado won because it played defense like a bull in a china shop, while the Wings played back-up-back-up-back-up- poke.

Colorado won because Detroit could not stay out of the penalty box, even on a night when they did most of the bleeding. . . . Draper suffered a broken jaw and cheekbone according to several of his teammates, including a livid Dino Ciccarelli.

“I can’t believe I shook his bleeping hand,” Ciccarelli said of Lemieux.
“I hadn’t seen Kris’ face. It’s BS. Kris was one of our best players, and Lemieux blindsided him. The poor kid was right by the door, he had his back to him, he didn’t have chance. He was at his mercy. Lemieux could have broken his neck. Hey, they beat us, they had the better team — but that’s just BS.”

You want more? Or is that enough suffering?

Although the final images will be of Sakic — whacking that greased-lightning wrist shot past Osgood, or cutting like an Etch-a-Sketch line, leaving Paul Coffey helplessly lost before firing again into the net — still, when all is said and done, this series probably turned in the very first game, on a desperate shot by Mike Keane in overtime. The Wings had played well enough to win; had they done so, the Colorado players, who stood in awe of Detroit coming in, might never have gotten as confident as they did. Instead, with one win in their pockets and nothing to lose, the Avalanche hung it all out in Game 2 and won that handily.

And with a two-game lead, the Avalanche became a different team. They became cocky. Their players seemed to say to themselves, “Hey, these Wings are tight. They could sink themselves.”

So they followed the playoff textbook, went with muscle over finesse, and in the end, the Wings did indeed do themselves in. Who has to answer for this? Certainly Scotty Bowman, who seems to devise wonderful finesse teams that can’t tough it out to the finish line. Certainly Fedorov, who should study guys like Sakic, and realize that Cups mean more than trophies. Certainly Keith Primeau, was in a terrible slump, and Slava Fetisov, who often specialized in turnovers, and Paul Coffey and Nicklas Lidstrom, who are wonderful offensive threats, but often seem to be defensive liabilities.

But hey. You want to throw blame around? There’s plenty. What’s the point. The Wings couldn’t sleep last night because of the nightmares. The Avalanche couldn’t sleep because of the excitement.

Snowed under. Now what do they do?

You want to know the real victims of this early exit? Next season’s Wings. Who will believe in them now, no matter what they do? It’s all gone now. This show has closed. The Detroit hockey franchise could hardly play a better regular season — their 62 victories were the most in history — yet the postseason was root canal. Struggle against Winnipeg (blamed on a hot goaltender) struggle against St. Louis (blamed on a hot goaltender and tight defense) and collapse against Colorado (blamed on a hot goaltender, a tough defense, and a good offense.) No more blame. Who did the Wings expect — the Bad News Bears?

Detroit won 10 games in the postseason and lost nine, barely over .500. The fact is, other teams lifted a new level, and the Wings stayed put, or, thanks to injuries and slumps, actually got worse.

So now what? Do you break up this team? To a degree, you must. Not because they aren’t good players — heck, they’re great players. But together, they have too many bad memories. They are like the Utah Jazz in basketball or the Buffalo Bills in football, they hear the same whispers, they are haunted by the same ghosts, it might not be possible to get beyond the demons with this group. The Wings need to import some new — and bigger — bodies, not so much for what they bring to the table as for what they don’t. No memories. No history. No curses.

So be it. Enough. Everyone is tired. Tired of analyzing where the Wings’ offense went. Tired of watching the Wings get mauled and held and being told
“this is the way it is in the postseason.” Tired of waking up feeling depressed.

Here’s a thought. Next time — and there will be a next time — let’s try to expect nothing and enjoy what we get. The biggest shame of this season might not be the sad finish Wednesday night, but the lack of enjoyment throughout the season. The Wings put together a Hall of Fame season, yet what was their reaction? “We haven’t done anything.” And when they made it past Winnipeg? “We haven’t done anything.” And when they edged out St. Louis. “We still haven’t done anything.” Hey. There are towns where they’d be happy to be playing this time of year.

Instead, the Wings’ season was an often joyless affair, filled with anxiety, hand-wringing, and over-analysis. That’s not what sports are supposed to be about. Hey. If we want to get an ulcer, we can go to the office.

So next time, a happier approach. Remember that the payoffs are weird, they’re about bounces and goalies and who stays healthy. If Detroit makes it, great. If it doesn’t, hey, neither do a lot of teams. That has to be a better approach than the sick feelings this town has this morning, and the sad looks of the Red Wings as they skated in that slow line at the end of the night, congratulating yet another team in taking what they truly believed was theirs alone. They began a mile high Wednesday night, and this morning, they seem to have fallen every inch of it. See ya next dream. It sure seems a long way off, doesn’t it?

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