by | May 4, 2004 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

CALGARY, Alberta — The red light came on, and for Detroit, the rest of the lights went out. The Flames had scored, one goal, after 79 minutes of choking, desperate, zero sum hockey, and the series, the season, and a slice of Detroit history was finished.

Paradise lost.

Let’s face it. A wonderful hockey era melted away forever here, on this cold, windy Monday, in a western Canadian city, in a building shaped like a saddle. The once-mighty team from Detroit fell to the surprising team from Calgary. The latter goes on. The former goes away, as diminished as a lion king defeated by a cub.

By the end of this long overtime night, the Red Wings looked old and slow and ready to go. A game that should have started like a race car instead began like a coughing jalopy, picked up speed, then died on the side of the road, with the Wings, the best offense in hockey, held scoreless for the second game in a row.

Paradise lost. Bottom line: Detroit’s dream season fell two rounds and 10 victories shy of a Stanley Cup. In other words, not even close. It ended with a defeat to a No. 6 seed. It ended with a gasping power play, a slowed defense, and a big goose egg, when Martin Gelinas, who played a brilliant game all night long, popped the puck past Curtis Joseph, who stopped all the shots but that one.

It ended with the Wings promising a storm, but delivering only gloomy clouds.

“I expect our best hockey is still in front of us,” Brendan Shanahan had said before this game.

Maybe it was. But they never caught up to it. The Wings were all lightning, no thunder. Whatever they were supposed to be on paper, it stayed there, on paper. On ice, they were eminently beatable. And now they are beaten. Final tally of the 2004 playoffs: The Wings won six and lost six. You don’t get Cups for that.

Last dance. Lights out. To paraphrase Marlon Brando, “it coulda been a dynasty.”

Instead it’s considerably less. The Wings of Hull, Chelios, Shanahan and Yzerman have likely skated their last turn. And, perhaps fittingly, the final game saw Steve Yzerman at home nursing a wounded eye, Chris Chelios wearing street clothes with a bum shoulder, Shanahan blanked, as he’d been almost all playoffs, and Brett Hull playing like an old man trying to avoid getting puddle-splashed by a bus.

Calgary 1, Detroit 0.

Paradise lost.

Just no firepower

What’s saddest about this final defeat is how tepid a battle it was for much of the night. Although the Wings — visited by a just-out-of-the hospital Yzerman moments before they left for the airport Sunday, the ultimate Knute Rockne moment — had everything to scrape and claw and battle for, early on, whenever they got it behind Calgary’s net, it was the Flames who came out with it.

Whenever the Wings tried moving to the middle, the Flames took the puck before it did any damage.

Whenever the Wings tried to surge forward, the Flames were there to push them back.

The Wings knew — lord how they knew! — that the best way to score was to clog the net area and create disturbance. Yet they often opted for the easier finesse route, shooting from outside, shots that were easily stopped by Miikka Kiprusoff.

Meanwhile, Calgary stayed with its game. Calgary finished its checks. Calgary had jump in it skates and power on its sticks. Calgary kept putting touch passes into the danger zone. You notice how many times I’m saying Calgary?

So dominant — and confident — was the Flames’ effort, that you felt their point coming as surely as if the rink were tilted in their direction. Gelinas clanked one off the goal post. Jarome Iginla actually put the puck in, only to have it negated by an interference penalty by Kirk Maltby, who knocked the net off its pins seconds before.

In some ways, that was the Wings’ best defensive play of the night.

In the end, it wasn’t the specifics but the overall that surprised you. The Wings were supposed to play with all the surety and skill that future Hall of Famers possess. But it was Calgary that seemed relaxed and focused. Detroit had the supposedly lethal power play — but once again it was dry. Detroit was supposed to fight with the ferocity of a caged beast, but Calgary took it to them all night long. Derian Hatcher, Detroit’s lumbering tough guy, was consistently outskated by faster Flames. You didn’t hear the boards rattle very much from Wings slamming into Flames, let’s put it that way.

But then, when you considered the semi-depleted roster, maybe that wasn’t a surprise. The old guys looked too old. And the young guys didn’t look old enough.

Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg didn’t lift the game all night, just as they hadn’t all postseason, and this — whether the Wings want to talk about it or not — should be their biggest concern whenever they return. Flashy numbers are meaningless if you get shut out in the playoffs — as Datsyuk, their leading goal-scorer, was against Nashville and Calgary. In Monday’s Game 6, he had one shot in regulation. One shot?

Here’s the bottom line: You don’t win games with your roster, your stats or your reputation. You win with what you bring — and what you leave — on the ice.

Calgary left everything it had.

The Wings left for the airport.

Major changes will come

Somewhere back in suburban Detroit, Yzerman watched this game while recovering from eye surgery and must have wondered “what if?”

What if he had been playing? What if he hadn’t taken that puck to the face in Saturday’s Game 5? What if he had just been a few inches farther or a few inches behind?

Truth is, you can ask that of all of them. What if Datsyuk had been a few inches closer on his man in Game 3, preventing the winning goal? What if Jiri Fischer had been a few feet better on defense in Game 5, when the only goal was scored? What if Shanahan, Zetterberg, Hull or Mathieu Schneider had been a few inches higher with their screaming shots?

What if? What if? What does it matter? The plain truth is the Wings did not deliver when they had to deliver. They played hard in stretches, but they lost to a team they should have beaten, four games to two, after struggling against a team they should have mastered. We are constantly hearing Detroit players warn “this team is really tough” and “this goalie is really hot.”

But the Wings won 16 more games than Calgary and had 55 more goals during the regular season, and so something is amiss. Either October through April is pointless, or the Wings simply couldn’t rise to the occasion as well as their opponents. They’ve played tough teams and hot goalies before. The trick is to be tougher and hotter.

So this is the end. You can almost certainly say farewell to Hull and Chelios and Steve Thomas and Boyd Devereaux. Maybe Schneider, too. Money may make Shanahan a casualty. Sergei Fedorov and Igor Larionov were gone before the season started. And health and age might mean last Saturday was the final time Yzerman will ever wear a No. 19 sweater.

If so, give due notice to his — and all the others’ — positives: They gave us great joy, many great nights of hockey, and along the way, three Stanley Cups. Those downtown parades will never be forgotten, and can never be taken away.

But each year counts as much as the next, and with those successes came bitter disappointments, ones that will fester as the years pass, because great chances squandered never come again.

The Wings were ousted in the first round by Los Angeles three years ago. Shouldn’t have happened. They were swept by Anaheim in the first round last year. Shouldn’t have happened.

And now this: a six-game playoff eviction by a team that, honestly, never expected to achieve it — at least not until the Red Wings convinced them. Calgary hadn’t been to a conference final in 15 years. Its roster is one superstar (Iginla), one hot goalie, and a lot of support players. No offense, but if that’s all it takes, Mike Ilitch wasted a lot of money.

He won’t anymore. Economics, labor and the advancing years will decimate the Detroit roster, and whatever comes back to play in Joe Louis Arena — whenever it comes back — will look noticeably different.

And it may never look as impressive. So thank you, boys, and good night. For Detroit fans, this was still a great stretch: the best players kept arriving, new ones replacing old ones, the Stanley Cup was always a realistic goal and a few were actually delivered.

And for the players, well, it was the best place to be, the best franchise, the best roster, the best perks, a paradise, really, if this is how you make your living.

But all things end, and this thing ended here, on a windy night near the Canadian Rockies. Paradise lost, in a city known for cows, bulls and horses. Not an octopus in sight.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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