The last nine minutes were like something out of a war movie, explosions, bodies flying, nobody sure who was still out there, or, for that matter, who was even left standing. Vladimir Konstantinov hit the ice to block a shot, and his hand went numb from the impact. Paul Coffey took a stick to the head and lay face-down, bleeding. Sergei Fedorov saw a rebound and tried to flick it past the goalie, the crowd screamed, the puck hit the goalie’s leg pads, the crowd screamed again, Fedorov tried again, off the body — denied! Face-offs turned to pile-ons, elbows and knees were weapons, and as the clock ticked down, the puck was a live grenade, smacked in the final seconds by Darren McCarty, inches from a score, the shot went wide . . .

And then silence.

Blood. Sweat. Fears.

“It’s hard to explain,” sighed McCarty, after the Wings lost their third in a row to St. Louis and sent this city into its habitual pre-elimination depression. “It’s not like we’re not trying. If anyone knows a witch doctor who can take this spell off us, we’ll take him.”

Here’s your witch doctor, Red Wings: The mirror. I can write all day about Sunday’s marvelous effort, the brave hits, the 39 shots. In the end, it is as meaningless as a squished octopus. This is your team? These are your Russian stars? This is your “quiet confidence” that we always hear about? Fine. Then this is your challenge. What you have to do now is simple, win two in a row
— heck, it’s nothing that the team you’re playing hasn’t done, and they’re not as good as you. These are the 1996 St. Louis Blues, remember? This is a team that acquired Wayne Gretzky, maybe the greatest player ever — and couldn’t finish over .500.

But they are stepping up when it counts, and they’re getting production from the few stars they have — which, for the last few games, is more than the Wings can say. No one is knocking the Detroit effort. The effort is wonderful. But effort is for the regular season. The playoffs require excellence.

Blood. Sweat. Fears. Where’s the offense?

In the last two games, who has scored for the Blues? Gretzky, Brett Hull and Gretzky again. Big names, big games. Hello, Fedorov? Hello, Coffey? Hello, Igor Larionov? Hello, Keith Primeau? All of these guys are huge offensive threats for Detroit; in five games of this series, they collectively have one goal. One goal. This is not about cuts and bruises. This is not about drenched uniforms. This is not about how tired they feel when they lie down in bed at night. This is about production.

“If you’re gonna win, your best players have to be your best players,” admitted captain Steve Yzerman, one of the few Wings willing to face the media after Sunday’s 3-2 defeat. He stood uncomfortably against his locker, already dressed, sweat still streaming down his forehead. “You can play good defense all you want, but the guys who know how to put the puck in the net have to do it.”

This includes the Russian unit, which recently has been as useful as an expired passport.

Now, it is worth pointing out why the Wings seem to so often be in this position. It happened last year against New Jersey. It happened two years ago against San Jose. Part of the problem is the NHL doesn’t play the same game in the regular season and the playoffs. Far more holding and grabbing is allowed in the playoffs, which can slow an offensive machine like Detroit.

“They can talk all they want about changing the rules,” Yzerman said, “we all knew once the playoffs came, that was out the window.”

It also doesn’t help that, when defensive teams want to play harder, they simply tighten their checking, they muck it up, but when offensive teams want to play harder, sometimes they rush shots, or think too much about them. It’s like screaming, “Make the putt! Make the putt!” Sometimes exactly the opposite happens.

So the Wings get nearly twice as many scoring chances as the Blues and still lose. They don’t finish. They get Primeau charging the net like a buffalo, then fanning weakly on a shot. They get Fedorov weaving through defenders, then having his stick slapped before he gets the shot off. And next thing you know, fans are trudging out of Joe Louis Arena, shaking their heads, ready to cry.

Blood. Sweat. Fears. Who’s the better team?

A suggestion here. If you’ve stayed on the bandwagon to this point, you ought to be there Tuesday night. The truth is, the Wings can win this. The Rangers — who had a little bad history of their own — came back from this same deficit against New Jersey, then won the Stanley Cup. If you jump off now, start bad-mouthing the team, you could feel a little sheepish come Friday morning.

Why bother? What you say, what I say, has no bearing anyhow. The Wings are either confident enough to handle a problem like this, or they’re not ready to win the Cup. Listen. If the St. Louis Blues — behind Jon Casey — can chase the Wings out of the hunt, then a lot of people were wrong about Detroit’s right to a championship.

We’ll see Tuesday — and with any luck, Thursday. And what we’ll look for is this: character. It is not measured in fatigue, in bruises or regular-season stats. It is measured in 60 minutes of hockey, and the scoreboard at the end.

“Are you confident now?” someone asked Brett Hull in the victorious Blues’ locker room.

“Confident?” he said. “We’re playing the best team in hockey.”

Someone needs to remind the Wings.

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