WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Keith Primeau saw the puck, stole the puck, and whipped it into the empty net with a swing so hard it could have sliced someone’s head off. The arena seemed to gasp a final breath, then fell silent.
One dead dragon.
Three to go.
“There was anger in our locker room before the game,” said Primeau, who put the empty-net exclamation mark on Sunday’s 4-1 victory, which polished off Winnipeg and advanced the Wings to the playoffs’ second round. “Normally, we’re doing a lot of talking, pumping each other up. Today, it was just quiet.”
“Quiet means angry?” he was asked.
“Quiet means angry,” he said.
What’s that old expression? That which does not kill you makes you stronger? The Wings emerge from this raucous first- round series not worse for
wear, but better. Hockey-wise, these Jets were good for the Wings. They gave them healthy scoops of things they’ll have to face again and again if they really want the Stanley Cup — including unreal goaltending, and a grit that cannot be measured in scouting reports.
The Wings handled all of it, with the quiet patience of a surgeon who gets squirted in the eye with blood. It might shock the outsider, but the doctor knows it’s just part of the business.
So, on Friday, it took Detroit 52 shots to score one goal, but there was no panic. And on Sunday, it took just one shot, the very first, a snapper by Slava Kozlov, that cracked the shell of Friday’s miracle goalie, Nikolai Khabibulin. And all the Jets’ horses and all the Jets’ men couldn’t put their magic back together again. The Wings would go on to score the way Chicago folks used to vote — early and often — and the life drained from this madhouse arena like water going down the tub.
“When Kozzie put that goal in and I looked up and saw it was our first shot, I knew we were on our way,” said forward Kris Draper. “It was a different game than Friday. That’s all we needed to know.”
One dead dragon.
Plenty of good signs
Never mind if it was six games, or five, or seven. The truth is, for heavily favored teams such as the Wings, first-round playoff series are like sand traps on golf courses — they’re only there to frustrate you. The best you can hope for is to survive them with minimal damage.
The Wings did. And once again, they showed they are master adapters. They won the opener, at home, with Chris Osgood in the net, and the closer, on the road, with Mike Vernon in the net. They won four games without a single goal from their leading scorer, Sergei Fedorov.
They won by scoring late (Games 1 and 4) and on Sunday, they won by scoring early. Needing to take the whitewashed crowd out of the game, Kozlov scored twice and Steve Yzerman once in the first 17 minutes. The series was essentially over before the first intermission. And when the Wings skated past Winnipeg in the postgame handshake, several of the Jets took their hands and said, “Go and win the Cup now. You deserve it.”
“When do you start thinking about the next round?” Yzerman was asked, his hair still wet from the postgame shower.
“I’m doing it right now,” he said.
Now, I want to add something here. While the feature photo is the Wings advancing, the wide-angle lens picks up something else. This was the end of Canada in the 1996 NHL playoffs. The whole country! All five teams that made the playoffs — Calgary, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg — have been eliminated in the first round. The Jets not only go away for the season, but go away for good, off to Phoenix, the latest victim of a profit-seeking owner, and a sunny American resort town bent on becoming major league.
No Canada in the NHL playoffs — with three rounds to go? You may be happy for the Wings, but there is no way not to feel sad about this. Imagine no American baseball teams in the World Series. Hockey is Canada’s game; in some places it is the only game in town, and the NHL is plucking those towns like unwanted nose hairs. It seems unfair, insensitive, almost disrespectful. I don’t care what the bottom line shows. On Sunday, painted beneath the ice of raucous Winnipeg Arena, was a thank-you message for charity money raised by fans.
And when the game ended, not a soul left the building. Many fans were crying, banging on the glass, and kept clapping until their team, the losing team, came back out for one last good- bye.
Let’s see that in Phoenix. Hockey in these smaller and suddenly unwanted Canadian towns often galvanizes the community, gives it spirit and drive. Heck, Winnipeg only got into the NHL because of an astounding community effort, which included — get this — boycotting a local brewery. That’s a pretty brave thing, if you’re Canadian.
None of it seems to matter. There are better dollars elsewhere. And this morning, not a soul in Winnipeg, and not a soul in all of Canada, has a local team to root for. Strange, no?
Ah, well. The Wings do not worry about such things. They have their eyes locked on the castle atop the mountain. Today they wipe their swords clean and plot their next attack.
One dead dragon.
Three to go.
Now. Let’s see what kind of fire these St. Louis guys are breathing. . .