The game was played on Memorial Day, a day for men who go down fighting. That was the bad sign.
The good sign was they don’t celebrate Memorial Day in Russia.
Da. Da. Da. The first three home pucks in the net Monday night were good enov, strong enov and lucky enov, and the drought of the Russian goal-scorers came to a temporary halt, as did the burial service for this Detroit hockey season. And I didn’t even mention the highlight of the evening — when Vladimir Konstantinov plowed into Colorado bad boy Claude Lemiuex, and lifted him into the air, a full 180 degrees.
They call that . . . flipov.
Da. Da. Da.
‘It was like taking the blackboard and wiping it clean,’ admitted assistant coach Barry Smith of the goals scored by the recently dry Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov and Slava Kozlov, which helped push the Wings past the Avalanche, 5-2, and send this cliff-hanging series back to the mountains. ‘All the talk, all the things guys like Sergei have been hearing, it’s gone. They can just play the game now.’
And once again, this hockey-crazed city can light candles and pray for a minor miracle. This was not a night that had victory written all over it. Quite the contrary. When the crowd filled Joe Louis Arena, you could almost hear it inhale and begin chewing its fingernails. With the Wings 60 minutes from elimination, this was not a confident audience, and in the opening stages this did not look like a really confident hockey team.
But the first goal has a remarkable effect on the Wings — they are 9-2 in these playoffs when they open the scoring — and Monday night was a textbook example. Suddenly the Wings were in front of the net, banging for position and taking control of the bounces.
Here, in the first period, was young Kozlov, who hadn’t scored a thing this series, whacking a deflected shot out of midair like a baseball, putting it past a startled Patrick Roy for the 1-0 lead. And here, just a minute later, was a close-in Larionov — who had a golden chance to tie the game on Saturday night but overthought and got nothing — making no such mistake this time, taking a rebound off the back wall and firing it across the crease past
Roy again. Score: 2-0.
And here, finally, when the Avalanche tightened the score to 2-1, was Fedorov, who hasn’t had a goal since the Brezhnev administration — well, it felt that way, didn’t it? — and he redirected a Paul Coffey centering pass past Roy for the old friend he’d been waiting for: the red light.
‘We switched lines and I liked it very much,’ said Fedorov in the Wings’ locker room after the game. ‘We had more team speed, and more line speed.’
‘Did you say to yourself ‘finally’ after you scored?’ he was asked.
‘No, I did not think that way.’
‘So it was no big deal?’
He blinked. ‘Oh, it was big deal.’
Da. Da. da.
Importance of emotion
Now, while hockey pundits will analyze the line changes made by Scotty Bowman, and the fresh legs of some inserted players, and the benching of Keith Primeau — who, according to one coach, told them ‘he couldn’t go’ because of a high groin pull — still, if you ask me, one of the most telling moments came late in the second period, when half the crowd was already in the hallway.
Greg Johnson, a seldom-used, baby-faced center, came screaming in to follow a Martin Lapointe breakaway, and when Lapointe missed, the puck came out in front and there was Johnson whacking the rebound past a helpless Roy for a 5-2 lead. It was a fine play. A fast play. And you know what Johnson did? He leapt in Lapointe’s arms and celebrated as they fell to the ice.
‘Afterwards I apologized,’ said Johnson, still smiling an hour later. ‘I told Martin I didn’t mean to injure him. But I was so geeked up. My emotions just took over!’
Maybe the Wings need more of that. Maybe this whole ‘We haven’t done anything yet’ approach needs to take a powder for the rest of this series, because the game needs to be fun to be played at its highest level. And it has been a while, even in victory, that ‘fun’ has been used as an adjective around the Wings’ locker room.
The fact is, this Colorado series has been grueling to play, and draining to watch. Monday night, there was part of the city that felt ‘Enough. If they’re gonna lose, let’s get it over with. All this hand-wringing, finger-pointing, and over- analysis is driving us crazy.’
But then Kozlov put his shot past Roy and you know what? The dream train began to fill up again. It’s addicting. What are you gonna do?
‘We played loose tonight, and that was important,’ said Doug Brown, who was reunited with old linemates Kozlov and Fedorov and joined them on the score sheet. ‘It’s important that we keep a positive, carefree attitude. That’s when we play our best.’
‘How about the Russians scoring?’ he was asked.
He laughed. ‘Red Wings scored. Not Russians.’
Da. Da. Da.
Off to Denver
Now the Wings are hardly in the driver’s seat with this victory. The fact is, for much of the game, Detroit’s defense still was going backward when it should have been attacking, and it still allowed too many Colorado players to come streaking in on Chris Osgood like stealth bombers. Only the lucky bounces and Osgood’s quick reflexes kept the score down. If the Wings count on those things being there Wednesday in Game 6, they could be coming home on a very quiet flight.
Detroit still needs to claw its way back to its best form. Now that the jinx of Russian scoring has been broken, which is one of the ways the Wings can win this series, they need to focus on the ways they can lose it — and eliminate them. They are making too many turnovers and giving up too many uncontested shots. They should not be fooled by the applause that echoed deep into Monday night at Joe Louis Arena. It won’t be there on Wednesday.
‘It’s not going to be our speed, it’s going to be our experience that wins this series,’ Bowman said. ‘And it’s going to be whoever can get a few breaks, get the lead and play smart hockey.’
For now, they head for the mountains with a cup of optimism, some spring in their legs, an active Paul Coffey and Steve Yzerman, and a few Russian players who, whether they admit it or not, are feeling a little more relaxed right now. Or, to paraphrase the Stuart Smalley character on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ they’re good enov, they’re strong enov, and doggone it, they’re still playing hockey. How about that?