FINALLY! THE FINALS!

DALLAS – It was steaming hot outside American Airlines Arena, temperatures in the 90’s, bad ice weather, a bad omen for a northern team, and the Red Wings didn’t need any more bad omens. But unworthy teams stumble and fall, while worthy champions stumble but come back harder. And so the Wings, after two losses in trying to close this series, came down to Texas, stood tall against the fire, then threw themselves into it Monday night.

They fronted goalie Marty Turco like a gangster itching for a fight. Kris Draper fronted him until a puck went in off Draper’s face. Pavel Datsyuk fronted him and top-shelfed a rebound for a goal. Dallas Drake fronted him and chopped and chopped until Turco’s redwood shield came crashing down, the puck slipped through, and the Stars were snuffed to ashes.

Heat, handled.

West, won.

“We were relentless,” Draper said after the 4-1 Game 6 clincher. And “relentless” was an understatement.

Fire up the finals. Yes, the Stanley Cup finals. It has been six years in coming, six long years of shouldas, couldas and almost-dids, but the Red Wings of Hockeytown are kings of the Western Conference again, they are back in the big room now, back where the Lord Stanley sits on a throne and only one other team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, has a chance to grab his crown.

The Wings got there with a gutsy, overwhelming performance, putting naysayers – and the Dallas Stars – to bed in the opening minutes, shooting better, hitting better and getting to the net better than their suddenly surprising opponent. All Detroit had been missing the last few games was back in Game 6, the aggressiveness, the productivity, the calm, speedy brilliance of a team that believes in itself.

Impressive? The Wings had the first five shots of the game. They scored on their first power play. They had three goals in the first 17 minutes.

Impressive? By the first intermission, the crowd’s loudest cheer was for a Detroit fan on the big screen who had a pie thrown in his face. Hey, if that’s all you got, Dallas, enjoy it.

Detroit has places to go.

West, won.

Fire up the finals.

The honor roll

“Where did that game come from?” someone asked Drake, who had an assist, two blocked shots and his first goal of the playoffs.

“I sat close to Zetterberg tonight,” he said, laughing. “And hoped it would rub off.”

How fresh is this? The last time it happened, Steve Yzerman was on the ice, instead of in a suit upstairs, and Brett Hull was on the ice, instead of in a suit as a Dallas executive, and Brendan Shanahan was on the ice instead of in a Rangers uniform, and Igor Larionov was still playing, and Dominik Hasek hadn’t retired for the first time, and Scotty Bowman – oh, yes – Scotty Bowman was still behind the bench.

This 2008 roster has remnants, yes, but this is a whole different team, with a different philosophy, a different set of stars, and a different coach, Mike Babcock, who finally has seen his regular-season excellence rewarded with a matching postseason.

This will be the first finals for Henrik Zetterberg, who is skating toward royal treatment in Detroit, and who slammed the door closed Monday with the Wings’ fourth goal, a short-handed breakaway that left Turco sprawled and helpless.

It is the first finals for younger, upcoming talent like Valtteri Filppula, Niklas Kronwall and Jiri Hudler.

And it is a first for an aging, sentimental favorite, 39-year-old Drake, whose last championship came when he was in college. How sweet was Monday night for this guy? He assisted on the first goal by Draper with a perfect pass off Draper’s face, and he scored the third goal by chopping away at Turco like a man scraping his way out of prison. Drake, who is old enough to be on his second stint with the Wings, had been talking for days about how special this chance was, how he cherished the very taste of being this close.

“I’m not gonna lie, I considered it,” Drake said about the possibility of retiring if the Wings lost the series. “It’s been 16 years and this is the farthest I’ve gone and the closest I’ve come.”

Other Wings have been here before, multiple times. Nicklas Lidstrom, the captain, has three Cups and four appearances, and he is the first captain not named Yzerman to take Detroit to the finals in decades. Before this game, Lidstrom had said that the Wings “need to stay loose” and that he would “talk about positive things” to ensure it.

Whatever he said, he could sell it to Oprah.

This will be the second finals for Datsyuk, who hasn’t mumbled three quotable sentences since he has been here, but could fill a film vault with his highlight plays. It’s No. 5 for Darren McCarty, No. 4 for Kirk Maltby and Tomas Holmstom.

And, oh, yes, the fourth time for a guy named Chris Osgood.

How about this kid? Ten years ago, he led the Wings to a title. Then he was unprotected in the waiver draft. Then he went away. Then he came back. Then he sat on the bench. And here he is, with 10 victories in his last 12 playoff games, with stats that would take the shine off of new chrome, and with a calm that would put a hypnotist to sleep.

“How’s it feel?” Osgood was asked as he peeled off his sweaty uniform.

“It feels good,” he answered. “I can get some rest now.”

Osgood kept Dallas at bay time and time again Monday night, never flopping or flailing, never giving an inch until the game was well out of reach. With five minutes left in the game, he faced Mike Ribeiro on a breakaway, and Ribeiro fired and Osgood dropped into a perfect butterfly, stopped it like a wall, a move he might not have made so well a few years ago. And that said it all. He won’t get as much credit for this as he should – because he’s not nuts enough, or flamboyant enough, or old-enough looking, but who cares?

He’s in. All but one other starting netminder is out – including Turco, everybody’s “hot” goalie.

Heat, handled. West, won.

Fire up the finals.

The final step

In the tunnel outside the Wings’ victorious locker room, Yzerman stood with the other team executives. He wore a charcoal suit and not a drop of sweat on his forehead, a symbol of how things have changed since the last championship round.

“I’m really proud of these guys,” Yzerman said. “They’re a hard-working, humble group.”

Only time will tell if this Dallas series helped or hurt the Wings. It took two games, five days and a couple of airplane trips longer than it needed to, and all that wear and tear shows up eventually.

On the other hand, it pushed the Cup finals back a few days – they wont start until Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena – which may be precious time for injured Johan Franzen to return to form. And you can’t discount what they Wings learned about themselves from this series: That there is room for greatness and tightness against the same opponent, that nothing is guaranteed.

And that when you have a team down, you bury it into the floorboards.

The Wings learned that lesson here, and then they taught it – the third time this season they have finished a round on the road. Perhaps they were motivated by watching Pittsburgh dispatch Philadelphia by a score of 6-0 in their Eastern Conference finale. If so, this is the first of many “anything you can do, we can do better” challenges in the finals.

The finals. What a nice ring. Maybe in other cities, six years is nothing. In Hockeytown, it feels like an eternity – much like this series was starting to feel.

But it’s over now. The series. The wait. Trips to Texas. They came to the heat. They saw the heat. They threw themselves in the heat.

And there is more hockey to play.

West, won.

Stay icy.

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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