DENIED: WINGS FALL IN 3RD OT AFTER COMING SO CLOSE TO CUP

You wait. You sweat. You die a little to live a lot. And finally, if it is meant to happen, if it is really your destiny, it will happen. You must believe this if you play NHL hockey. The Red Wings seemed to play an entire season in a single game Monday night and into the wee hours of Tuesday morning, falling behind, scraping to get back, making mistakes, tripping over their own enthusiasm as the mountaintop came into view. They were down two goals. Then they were down one. Then they were tied.

And then, a little less than halfway through the third period, Brian Rafalski, who grew up in Dearborn, whizzed a shot past Marc-Andre Fleury for a 3-2 lead. The Wings were back on top – and you assumed they were staying there. The crowd was on its feet. The Stanley Cup was unloaded. The crowd got louder. The Cup was readied. The crowd was deafening. The Cup was on its way. The city was dreaming about a parade, ready for the biggest hockey party in six years – and then, with the goalie pulled, with 35 seconds left – oh, gosh, it even hurts to write it – Pittsburgh’s Maxime Talbot slammed a rebound in past Chris Osgood’s left foot, and the crowd, still standing, became 20,000 people who looked as if they’d just witnessed an execution.

And in some ways, they did.

Not so fast. It was suddenly next goal wins. The end of the season – or more of the season. Overtime came. No goals. Double overtime came. No goals.

And finally, in triple overtime, with players sagging and heaving and fans exhausted and hoarse, finally, the worst came to pass. A four-minute penalty on Jiri Hudler for high-sticking Brooks Orpik. Hudler sat in the penalty box. Orpik was bleeding from the mouth. It was nearly one o’clock in the morning, but you felt the earth move, and you had the feeling, something seismic in the hockey playoffs had just happened.

Moments later, it did. Petr Sykora – one of the few Penguins who has experienced a Stanley Cup victory – fired a shot from the short side, it went past Osgood.

Red light.

And forget about the coronation. Forget about the five-game series. Forget about the parade you might have envisioned in a couple of days.

The Wings are going back to Pittsburgh. And anything can happen.

Not so fast. Just a crazy, crazy time

The overtimes were insane. There were bounces and flips and ricochets and even a shot that flipped up and landed on the Pittsburgh net. Throughout the overtimes, the Wings were a hair’s breath away from winning it all, so many great chances, so much pressure

But let’s be honest. The Wings dug their own hole here. After playing one of their best games on the road in Pittsburgh Saturday night, they came out Monday and played about as bad a first period as you can play on a night like this. Their legs moved like tree stumps, their passes were as accurate as snowflakes, and their luck was just, well, no luck at all. Let’s face it: When Niklas Kronwall puts a puck past his own goalie, you’re not inclined to run over to the casino.

The Wings were uncorked, unnerved and underwhelming. The pressure of winning a Cup in front of a screaming, hysterical crowd – easily the loudest of the year – seemed to drape them in stage fright, and suddenly they were those kids who forget the easy words in the spelling bee. Pittsburgh could at least spell N-E-R-V-E-S and scored two goals in the first 15 minutes. And suddenly, any thoughts of a parade this week were replaced by thoughts of what you were doing Wednesday night, when Game 6 would surely be played, right?

But it’s a long game, a long series, and a long road to the Stanley Cup, and nobody said it was smoothly paved all the way. You keep playing. You keep digging. And finally here was Darren Helm, who minutes earlier had a clear breakaway chance and sent the puck halfway to Southfield, but now he took a pass from Kirk Maltby and fired a shot from the right circle, and it hit the skate of a diving Rob Scuderi and went through Fleury’s legs for the red light.

And the Wings were off the mat. The crowd said it all

And once off the mat, they were out of the stage fright mode and into frightening mode, and the only team that needed to be scared was Pittsburgh – because Detroit was on a warpath. It was insane, off-the-hook, furious if not well-choreographed action, diving, and charging, and spinning and checking, revved up players in a revved up mode, wild passes, countless giveaways, countless breakaways – all of it sountracked by a frenzied, howling crowd on every second.

Close? How about Pavel Datsyuk’s cutting in front of the net and flipping a shot off the crossbar – the underside of the crossbar – that required replay review before being denied. The underside of the crossbar?

Close? How about Valtteri Filppula, on a breakaway, seeing the puck interrupted by the stick of Orpik, who was flat on the ice!

Close? Any overtime hockey game is close. You’d need a computer program to log the near misses, the jumping up moments for the crowd, the choruses of “OOOH!” that rose again and again in overtime. Both teams were exhausted, barely able to produce sweat anymore. You go from Monday to Tuesday, from night hours to night owls. One team playing for a throne, one team playing to avoid extinction.

But anyone who follows playoff hockey knows once you go to triple overtime, it is rarely about the big picture and much more about the small, a tiny mistake, a fortunate bounce …

And when that penalty was called, when Sykora – who had said before the game he would score this night – fired that shot and the red light lit, well, you were seeing overtime all right.

And now the series is in overtime as well. Time for a road trip

How could this happen, you ask? Simple. When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose. The Penguins weren’t taking a Stanley Cup home this night, no matter what. They had no pressure. No crowd to disappoint. Nothing to lose. And under such circumstances, they found their best game. The Penguins were ferocious. They never let up. They had every reason to let it go, give in to the exhaustion, the injuries, the howling crowd.

Instead, showing moxie beyond their age, they kept fighting. Fleury was beyond terrific, facing 58 shots and stopping so many that could have gone in on some other less star-crossed night. He kept the Pens alive. He is the reason there is another box office date in the Igloo.

Think about it. The Penguins were 35 seconds from going home for the summer, and now they are going home for another game.

There is pressure now on the Wings and to be sure, on Osgood, who only faced four shots in the third period and let the tying goal in. Ozzie has been talking about a calmness in his second act as championship goaltender. He will have to prove it now. And Nicklas Lidstrom, who spoke all about keeping the team clam and even-keeled before this game, will have to do a better job of it for Wednesday. And coach Mike Babcock will earn his salary as much today and Wednesday as in any two-day period of his time here.

But OK. We’ve said all that. They go back to Pittsburgh, yes. And it may be little solace at the moment, but they are still in control of this series. They have a 3-2 lead. They have two games to win one. And one of those is back in Joe Louis Arena. The Wings are good on the road, they won Game 4 the last time they were in the Igloo. They are fully capable of winning the Cup there.

And if they do, they will have learned a valuable lesson; you cannot assume anything. You cannot count your silver before its shined. And pleasing your anxious home crowd can often be the worst type of pressure to live up to.

If the Wings learn all that, and win the Cup, it will be that much more precious, that much sweeter.

And if they don’t?

Let’s not talk about if they don’t right now, OK?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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