FOR YZERMAN, COFFEY, OSGOOD — A DAY TO FORGET

Paul Coffey had the look, and the look said it all about this very strange Sunday afternoon. He had just put the puck in a wide-open net; unfortunately, it was his own net. Coffey had been standing there, trying to protect the goal because his own goalie was taken out of the play, and suddenly a pass came across the crease from Stephane Yelle — not a Red Wing, that’s all you need to know — and Coffey put his stick out, a reflex as much as anything, and pop! In it went. Colorado had its first goal of the 1996 conference finals. Coffey rolled his eyes, glanced up at the rafters — “Get me outta here,” he seemed to say.

Steve Yzerman had the same look. He gave it during the third period. It was captured by a Fox TV camera which followed him as he moved along. Unfortunately, he was moving along in the Joe Louis corridor, dressed in jeans and T-shirt, having been injured in the second period, a groin pull (or so they say). The camera caught him leaving the hyperbaric chamber, and he cast it a glance, then dropped his head as he scurried into the locker room. The look was clear. “Get me outta here.”

Chris Osgood had the look, as well. You could see it through his mask. He had played a brilliant game — three periods plus an overtime — stopping nearly everything that challenged him, including point-blank shots by Peter Forsberg and old nemesis Claude Lemieux. Yet there were now three goals in his debit column — one by his teammate Coffey, the second by Adam Deadmarsh, who never even touched the puck with his stick, just bodied it into the net. And here now, just moments after Osgood looked like Superman, making a gorgeous diving catch of a Joe Sakic rebound — forget hockey, that was something from a baseball highlight reel — here he was, 2 1/2 minutes left in overtime, letting a grinder named Mike Keane put a 35-foot wrist shot past him for the winning goal.

A grinder? A wrist shot? After all that?

Game over. Osgood looked to that same spot in the rafters, gave that same heaving sigh, and you could hear the words all over again. “Get me outta here.”

Sunday, mucky Sunday. A different kind of opponent

“Things happen,” said Bob Errey, after the 3-2 loss, giving the only logical response in this often illogical game. “I thought we started out even; maybe they took the edge in the second period. We got it back in the third and, you know, anyone could have won it in overtime.”

Anyone could have. But you got the feeling that the Wings would not. The whole day felt a little out of kilter, a little off-base, perhaps because for the last seven games we’ve been watching the St. Louis Blues and their slow-down, defensive tactics, and now here was a speedy, water-bug Colorado team that seemed to do far less right than the Blues, yet won the game.

“We were flat,” said Marc Bergevin.

That can happen when, in less than 72 hours, you go from a Game 7 to a Game 1. And this Wings-Avalanche series is as similar to the St. Louis affair as orange juice is to chocolate milk. For one thing, there were actually penalties called — at least in the first two periods. For another, Yzerman, the star against St. Louis, was barely out there against Colorado. He has been, as Wings fans know, the best player in a Detroit uniform since the postseason began. How ironic that instead of the captain’s long overtime shot to win it, it was Keane’s long overtime shot to lose it.

Sunday, mucky Sunday. Take the good with the bad

“This was a big win for us,” said Avalanche coach Marc Crawford. “We did a lot of smart things, and we have to continue to do them. We almost have to play a perfect game to beat these guys.”

Perhaps. But this series, by many experts’ accounts, is not so much Colorado’s to win as it is the Wings’ to lose. And there are ways they could lose it. They must be careful to avoid them. Although the best thing to do when you start a conference final is to set the tone with a blowout (witness the Chicago Bulls), the Wings are good enough to drop a game like Sunday’s and shake it off.

They are not good enough to do it twice.

Or rather, they are not healthy enough.

Detroit is now without Yzerman — no word yet on how long — and Kris Draper, with an injured shoulder, and Bob Rouse, likely gone for the playoffs with a broken bone in his face. Other Wings are saddled with nagging injuries, the kind you play through but affect you just the same.

The Wings also might be developing a habit which I have seen with other top-notch playoff teams; they need to feel their backs against the wall before they turn up all the juice. Scotty Bowman’s group has gone to six games against Winnipeg and seven (with two in overtime) against St. Louis. Be careful of an addiction to danger. You can win a championship that way, but you can blow it as well.

For now, as I’ve been saying all playoffs long, do not take one game to mean anything more than one game. Sunday was wild, wacky, weird, but it also had some heroic moments. After all, Coffey, who scored for Colorado, also scored twice for Detroit. Someone threw a hat on the ice — hat trick, three goals, get it? Now, if he can just score one for Florida and Pittsburgh, he’d have the whole playoffs covered.

Ah, well. Perhaps the best spin was put on it by Darren McCarty. After the game, he raced out of the showers, grabbed some clothes from his locker and waved off the approaching reporters.

“Sorry, guys,” he said. “My wife’s about to go into labor.”

See? Tomorrow can always be a better day.

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