DETROIT FANS GET A BREATHER – TILL SATURDAY

First the shot, which made a thudding sound as it hit Chris Osgood’s pads. Then the swish, as several Red Wings skated the other way. Then the swelling roar, as Dino Ciccarelli surged ahead of a defender, puck on his stick. Then the explosion, as Ciccarelli flicked a shot past the sprawling San Jose goalie, Arturs Irbe, for a Detroit goal, its sixth of the night.

Blowout.

Blow out.

As in, everybody exhale. We get hockey life one night at a time in this city; breathe for a day then hold your breath then breathe again. The fans who came into Joe Louis Arena Thursday evening were like visitors to an emergency room, eyes darting, nerves jangling. By the time they left, comforted with the progress of the patient, they were more relaxed, able to smile. Call the relatives. Share the good news. Breathe again. Until tomorrow.

“I was scared sick about this game,” Ciccarelli admitted, after the Wings crushed San Jose, 7-1, to force a seventh game Saturday night. “Whether it’s the fear of losing or desperation, I don’t know, but it was a Game 7 atmosphere in Game 6 — and now we have to play the real thing.”

Right. Don’t hand this series to the Red Wings, but don’t bury them, either. The truth is, you take on a personality in a playoff, and sometimes you don’t like the personality you become. The Wings, right from the start of this Dance With Sharks, put their worst foot forward, wore a bad suit, forgot to floss. They lost the opener, and the best parts of them seemed to be stuck in traffic — parts like Sergei Fedorov’s scoring touch, and Keith Primeau’s aggressive production. Before you knew it, they were acting funny, not like themselves. They went to the West Coast, lost one game by getting cocky with a lead, lost another by going soft in the nets, and suddenly, this was the series from hell, and their feet were getting warm.

Thursday night, back in familiar surroundings, they found the elements they’d left behind, kind of like the blind date who gets over spilling wine on his pants and settles into a decent personality. Things began to click.

And if the previous three losses were lessons in what the Wings do wrong, Thursday was the wish list for things going right. Kind of like doing your Christmas shopping in the world’s biggest mall. Fedorov’s goal started it

It was more than symbolic, for example, that Fedorov — 0- for-11 shooting in this series before Thursday — got his first goal barely two minutes into the contest. Never mind that it hit off one player and dribbled past Irbe’s reach. It counts. And it started the efficiency checklist.

Get Fedorov a goal.

Check.

Get Ray Sheppard back into the flow.

Check.

Get Chris Osgood back to confident.

Check.

Get Steve Yzerman from injured to productive.

Check.

Stop playing to protect a lead — and play to pad it.

Check.

Win big; make San Jose think.

Check.

“It was nice to get some guys their first goals,” Yzerman said. “But it doesn’t do anything but set up Game 7.”

“The difference tonight,” said Shawn Burr, “was that the puck went in for us and it didn’t go in for them.”

Burr has a way of simplifying things.

So be it. The Wings couldn’t have asked for more. Well. Actually, they could have. They could have petitioned the NHL to make this a doubleheader, and finished this series in one night.

Which brings us to scheduling. . . . Schedule favored Sharks

The only thing wrong with Thursday night is that it should have been Game 5, not Game 6. This format of a two-three-two series between a Western Conference team from an eastern time zone versus a Western Conference team from a western time zone is simply too weighted toward the weaker squad. After all, it is very common for an underdog to steal one of the first two games of a playoff series, especially in the opening round. Then, suddenly, the stronger team has to live on the road for a week, play three games in a foreign building, and win at least one just to stay alive.

Sure, you can say a top team should be able to do that. But you can also say a top team deserves some reward for being a top team. The Red Wings won 13 more games than the Sharks did in the regular season. The Wings had the best record in their conference. This is what they get for it?

The axiom in a seven-game playoff, no matter what the sport, is that Games 2 and 5 are pivotal. The better team should at least have the chance to play those at home. If it’s really too far to fly back and forth for each of the last three contests, then I suggest the NHL do one of the following:

1) Get a new map.

2) Switch the first round to a best-of-five series.

2) Make it a 3-2-2 series, opening at the better team’s arena. What? Too weighted toward the good team? Well, isn’t that why you play the regular season?

But OK. That’s a fight for the future, and in this town, the future does not go beyond the next face-off. Remember last year, in the first round, the favored Wings won Game 6 on the road, and lost Game 7 at home to Toronto.

“We haven’t forgotten,” Yzerman warned.

Nobody here has. The cliche in sports is that you take ’em one game at a time. When it comes to breathing, you don’t have a choice. Understand that and you begin to understand hockey fandom in this town, and why the inhale is on for Saturday, even as Friday morning rolls over the river.

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