CAPTAIN MUST PUT BISCUIT IN BASKET

DENVER — Steve Yzerman leaned against the locker room wall and looked away from the reporters asking him questions, as if the answers might be at their feet or over their shoulders.

He said Game 1 was close. He said the Wings had their chances. He said,
“We just have to relax, not change too much.”

But he grimaced with each answer, as if he hated talking about the whole thing. And if I had one wish for the Red Wings tonight, it would be that, when it was over, Yzerman would be talking about the play he made to change or win the game — and not why yet another Colorado evening didn’t work out the way he wanted.

The other day, I read a story about Yzerman written by the Free Press’ Jason La Canfora. It talked about how the Captain has improved his defense. How he’ll sacrifice for the little things, like diving to block shots.

It also pointed out that he is far down the Wings’ list of goal-scorers in the playoffs.

Right now, I’d trade that one thing for all of the above.

Here’s why: playing hard is wonderful, but more and more, in this playoff time of year, you see the teams that advance are the ones whose big stars walk through fire. I watch Michael Jordan in the fourth quarter, studying the action like a general looking through his binoculars. Then he takes over. He could be 0-for-20 up to that point, but you simply know he is going to do it when it counts.

I see the same thing in Tim Hardaway of the Miami Heat. I see it at times with Patrick Ewing of the Knicks. I see it in Philly’s Eric Lindros now, and, to a degree, with the rejuvenated Wayne Gretzky in New York.

And — quite painfully — I see it almost every time I watch Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg and Claude Lemieux in the playoffs. They flame on when the game is in crucial mode.

And right or wrong, I find myself looking for that from the Red Wings captain.

Hey, Nineteen. This is the moment.

Always a great guy

Now, I have known Yzerman for more than a decade. And I think so much of him — he is as good, decent and hard-working an athlete as I have ever met —

that I confess a hesitancy to criticize him in any way. He has suffered the down years with this franchise, and he gave away barrels of youth and speed in years when three Steve Yzermans couldn’t have lifted his lowly hockey club.

I’ve seen him cut down by injuries in the playoffs. I’ve seen him play through pain so severe it would wipe out most of us.

But I also have seen a lot of sports, and this one thing seems to be true in all of them: It’s a team game, but it’s also Follow The Leader. And championship teams follow the one or two guys who run up the hill in the midst of all the danger, and yell over their shoulders, “This way! Do what I’m doing!”

Yzerman tries to do this now with sweaty effort, chipping at the puck, defense, blocking shots. But let’s be honest: He isn’t out there to block shots. And he’s not a defenseman. He’s a forward who gets big minutes and is on the power plays because, first and foremost, he is a playmaker and a scorer — second only to Gordie Howe on the Wings’ all-time list.

And the surest way for this team to rise is for him to play up to his reputation.

Did you watch Sakic on Thursday night? He hadn’t been playing great. But as soon as Detroit took a 1-0 lead, who came whisking down the ice and whipped a wrist shot past Mike Vernon, just 27 seconds after the Wings had celebrated?

Sakic did. It wasn’t the goal; it was the timing. Colorado needed to hear the trumpet call. Their captain rose to blow it.

I’d love to see Yzerman — with no goals against the Avalanche in six playoff games — hoist his performance, that way. Maybe it’s impossible. Maybe he plays every night at his peak level, and there isn’t another “gear” to shift to.

But if there is, now’s his time. Because losing tonight means the daunting task of beating Colorado four times in five tries. That’s not likely.

And if the Wings don’t beat the Avalanche this year, you have to wonder what happens next. Scotty Bowman could be gone. Vernon could be gone. The Russian Five could be the Russian Three. In the time it takes to circle back and reload, Yzerman’s best chance at a Stanley Cup could be gone.

It’s now or never

Critics say Yzerman has lost a step. That he cuts in nicely, but ends up going wide, or being ridden down by a defenseman, that the shot he ultimately puts on goal is rarely a hard or threatening one. One Colorado scout told me,
“He’s still great, but he can’t finish the way he used to.”

Well, we’ll see how he finishes. Maybe Yzerman only has three goals this postseason. Maybe he is getting older. (He is 32, and in his 14th NHL season.)

But deep inside the heart of every great player is the knowledge of what it takes to jump the fire. And even those who haven’t done it for a while — witness Gretzky — can dig down and find it one last time.

If it’s there, then don’t hold it back. The Wings’ fans need to rise the way Avalanche fans rise whenever Sakic streaks down the ice. They do it because their No. 19 can make the difference. You want to believe Detroit’s can, too. Now’s the time. Now is really the time.

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