CAPT-IVATING!YZERMAN’S GOAL WITH 1.7 SECONDS LEFTWINS OPENER

Now that’s how you start a season — with a perfect finish. The final rush, game tied and a surging Steve Yzerman, in the first game of what is likely his final year, takes a sweet backhand pass from his newest teammate, Ray Whitney, and zaps it past the L.A. goalie for the victory. He slaps the ice with his stick, shakes both fists toward the heavens, and smiles with every inch of the white mouth guard that protects his teeth, looking up, in amazement, at the frozen digits on the scoreboard: 1.7 seconds.

For one night, anyhow, the Captain beat back time.

“Is that the happiest you’ve been in a while over a goal?” someone asked Yzerman, after his game-winner gave the Red Wings a 3-2 opening night victory over the Los Angeles Kings.

“Well, it’s been a good 18 months since I did something like that,” he said, grinning.

His only shot of the night? The last shot of the game? In the net? Game over? It is the reason Yzerman, 38, captures the imagination of every sports fan in this city, and the reason why no one gives up on him as long as he doesn’t give up on himself.

During the exhibition season, he felt “slow.” His surgically repaired right knee was not bouncing back the way he wanted it to. Scoring wasn’t his concern. Skating was. Before Thursday night’s game, he received a tremendous ovation form the fans.

“What did you think of that?” someone asked.

He shook his head and chuckled. “I was just hoping it didn’t turn to boos by the third period.”

Not a chance. He beat the goalie. He beat the clock. He beat his own self-doubt.

That’s a finish.

And that’s a start.

One last hurrah

Earlier, the evening had the wistful air of a senior year in high school. Did anyone in Joe Louis Arena not think he was seeing Yzerman skate his final season opener? Did anyone not think he was seeing the last unveiling of Brett Hull or Chris Chelios? Did anyone not think he was witnessing both the start of Dominik Hasek’s comeback and the countdown to his departure?

There were no banners raised. No Stanley Cup hoisted. No rings distributed. Even the annual pregame video, usually a pastiche of the thrilling moments of last year, was instead a yearbook-like collection of memories narrated by Wings players, dressed in sweatshirts and speaking fondly of things past. The Wings, eliminated last season without a single playoff victory, were not coming off a jet stream of success; they were cranking up the old engine, giving it the gas, and digging in for one more long journey.

Here was the first night of the last season of hockey — at least hockey as we have come to know it in the last decade in Motown. With a labor dispute that paces like a wolf outside a mountain cabin, with an aging roster full of
“let’s give it one more try” veterans, many of the Wings you saw Thursday night are most likely playing in the final reel of their movie. Yzerman, Hull, Chelios, Hasek — perhaps Nicklas Lidstrom and Mathieu Schneider — could all call it a day if the labor dispute drags on. Others could depart for different pastures.

What we had here, then, was the start of the last roundup, and the Red Wings rode like the wizened cowhands they have become. They took it slow, no explosion of emotion, no bursts of nervous energy. They played the opener against Los Angeles knowing full well what it was: one of 82.

But when it was time to turn it on, they did. They tied the game with less than four minutes left, on a power-play shot that began on Lidstrom’s stick, came off of Pavel Datsyuk’s, and flew past Roman Cechmanek to make it 2-2.

And then the finish, Yzerman’s first goal of the year, Whitney’s first assist as a Red Wing, Hasek’s first victory since he hoisted the Cup two seasons ago, and a good familiar feeling that this is Hockeytown and things like this are supposed to happen here.

No Sergei and Igor

Which is not to say that there weren’t some fresh faces in class. Derian Hatcher, that big kid we all knew years ago, moved back to the neighborhood and plowed the ice in a red jersey. It seemed as if he’d been here all along. Whitney, the new import, made the critical pass to win the game. Jiri Fischer, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, was back and healed and scored the first goal of the season. And Hasek, like a teacher who resumes control after the substitute leaves the room, was back in the net, flipping and flopping and reminding fans that, as great as he is, he gives you palpitations just watching him.

There were absences as well. Sergei Fedorov, after 13 seasons in Detroit, is playing someplace else, and the speed he brought to this team was noticeably absent. Igor Larionov, the professor, was gone, too.

But for the most part, the Wings looked like the Wings, maybe a little slower, but still smart, still able to rise in bursts, to string together heady power plays and solid shorthanded defense. Tomas Holmstrom was still at the net, digging away, and Brendan Shanahan was still playing opportunist with the puck and Lidstrom was moving lithely on defense and Darren McCarty and Kirk Maltby did their grinding work and Hull never saw a shot he couldn’t try.

And finally the Captain, whose No. 19 is now, I believe, the official sweater of Joe Louis Arena, and there he was, reminding us that however over it might have felt last May, it ain’t over yet.

“We’re not really a sentimental group in here,” he said, glancing around the locker room. “There are guys in their last years of contracts, and we all know about the labor situation. But, basically, we just wanted to get off to a good start.”

You do that with a great finish. And the first game of the last season of hockey as we know it is now in the books, 81 more until they really count. The Wings are off and running, smiling behind their Captain, revving up their senior year, hoping to finish with honors.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. He will sign copies of his new novel, “The Five People You Meet In Heaven,” at 7:30 tonight at Little Book Shoppe on the Park in Plymouth.

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