GAME 4: DALLAS 3, DETROIT 1: NO GOAL, NO SWEEP

DALLAS – Robbery. That’s all there is to it. Hockey goals are hard enough to come by in the playoffs, especially when you’re inches away from the Stanley Cup Finals, but when you have them swiped, well, you have to cry foul.

The truth of Game 4 of these Western Conference finals is that the Red Wings drew first blood but had their sword yanked away and the corpse cleaned and stuffed. Pavel Datsyuk clearly scored on a slap shot from the left side in the second period, but it was waved off by an official who claimed Tomas Holmstrom was in the crease.

Read this carefully. Holmstrom was not in the crease. His skates were not in the crease. His ankles were not in the crease. His rear end was not in the crease. His head, back and elbows were not in the crease. His spleen was not in the crease. I don’t even know where the spleen is, but it was not in the crease.

And yet it was called off, erased, and a big fat zero hung on the scoreboard instead of a “1.” The crowd came alive. The Wings were suddenly not only playing Dallas, they were playing the officials. And the Stars must have felt like a death row inmate who just had a call come in from the governor.

How much effect did it have? Hard to measure. But it was real and tangible. The Wings seemed to lack fire for a few minutes after that – wouldn’t you if you were sucker-punched? – and the score stayed even until the final seconds of that period, when a side shot by Stephane Robidas banged off Chris Osgood, smacked into Loui Eriksson standing in front of the net, and he wristed it in for a 1-0 Dallas lead.

That should have made it 1-1.

“In all the time you’ve played with Homer, have you ever heard him called for having his rear end in the crease?” someone asked Henrik Zetterberg after the 3-1 defeat that sends this series back to Detroit for Game 5 Saturday – instead of sending the Wings to the Stanley Cup Finals.

“No,” Zetterberg said.

“Did you know that rule?”

“I don’t think it is a rule.”

Robbery. Wrong is wrong

Because from that point on, it was a different night. The Wings, who have been so excellent at keeping the Stars down, saw the roles reversed.

“It was the first time the Stars had a lead in the series,” Darren McCarty said afterward. “Obviously it had an effect.”

And obviously, from that point forward, what might have been disappeared into some bizarro world and you only have what is. The Wings did begin the third period with a quick strike of their own. Zetterberg took a pass from Datsyuk and flew one past Marty Turco for a tie. That, for most of these playoffs, has been a Detroit trademark. Come back with your own score before the cheering stops for the other guys.

But Dallas, which remember was only tied at that point, not behind as it should have been, found magic of its own. On a Stars power play, Detroit’s Dan Cleary lost his stick, and stood there, minus wood, as Mike Modano whacked a one-timer so hard it broke the sound barrier. It was past Osgood before he could see it, and the Stars, a little more than five minutes into the last period, had done something they hadn’t done all series long: get up off the mat and perform a takedown of their own.

They added another goal at 14:34 – and it was pack up the equipment, we’re playing a Game 5. Dallas fans will argue, understandably, that the third goal negates the impact of the referee robbery.

But that’s like saying if you take away the first shots of a war, it might be somebody else who began it. You don’t know how demoralized the Stars would have been if the Wings’ goal had stood up. The building was fairly quiet for a playoff game, and the fact is, when teams are down 3-0 in a series and they fall behind in the close-out game, they often slump and figure, internally, “It’s over.”

“Especially on the power play,” Nick Lidstrom said, “that’s the kind of goal you want to get, halfway through the game, you want to get that first goal.”

Instead, the wave-off not only kept the score tied, it provided hope and jump for the Stars. And may have siphoned some of the magic from the Wings.

No way to know. No way to measure.

But wrong is wrong.

And that was awful. The series goes on

Commissioner Gary Bettman was in the building Wednesday night. And ironically, when asked before the puck dropped about having a “preferred” team to make the Finals – for ratings sake – he said “I think all of you who know me know we don’t. We just want to see entertaining, exciting games, and we want to see the officials do a good job.”

Uh, well, Gary.

It was exciting.

As for your officials, glasses would help. But a rules change would help more. This is a stupid edict and trying to gauge it at the tensest moments of a playoff game is putting too much on an official’s sense of space evaluation. At the very least, make it replayable. Let the officials check the tape and correct a mistake. When the whole nation can view a replay on TV, but your officials can’t, there’s something broken in your system.

“I’ve never heard of a goal being disallowed because your ass was in the crease,” Osgood said. “If that was against me I’d laugh. I’d say thank you.”

McCarty agreed: “In my opinion – and it’s just my opinion – if you’re not impeding the goalie it shouldn’t be a rule.”

But it is. And it was falsely enforced Wednesday night, and now the Wings must practice several more days, and play again Saturday, and risk whatever injuries might come, instead of resting and enjoying their mostly injury-free luck heading into the Finals.

A moment here for the incredible run the Wings did put together, nine straight wins, nearly a month’s worth of playoff victories, and a crisp, relentless attack that has been a joy to watch. It developed its own momentum, it seemed, and many of us expected it to carry the Wings to the Finals by midnight Wednesday.

It didn’t. A referee’s hands began the process, and several Dallas Stars finished it.

And now, as McCarty put it, “We had a nice little run there, but we realize we’re not invincible.”

Not when you’re playing ghosts, you’re not.

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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