EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Mike Vernon trudged to the bench, lifted his leg and pulled himself over the boards, like a beaten rodeo rider leaving the pen. He yanked off his mask, squirted his head with water and looked to the heavens. All the help he found there was a rafter full of Devils fans, yelling
“DETROIT SUCKS!” Vernon spat. There was half a game to play in the biggest night of the year, and the highly touted goaltender of the highly touted franchise was done. So was his team. Stunned. Shaken. Shattered. The dream that seemed so vivid a week ago is now as likely as a comet in your bathroom. Forget it. There will be no celebrations, no relief from the curse that has kept the Stanley Cup out of Detroit for 40 years. The Wings, winningest team in the NHL, began to bleed along the Detroit River last Saturday; they now lie crippled in a swamp off a Jersey highway, one defeat from a bad summer vacation.

Three games, three losses? The Wings hadn’t done that all season. But then,

they hadn’t danced with the Devils all season, either. There were no excuses this night. No “gee, we were just a bounce away.” Mike Vernon, who needed to play the game of his life, didn’t even play a game of the week. He was brought to Detroit for one reason only, for a night like Thursday night, a night when nothing less than perfection would do. Instead, there were four goals past him by the midway point, and he was skating off, replaced by young Chris Osgood.

Vernon was bad. His defense was worse. It vowed to be as tough as New Jersey’s, and instead, it was backpedaling minutes into the game, confounding fans back home who spent this past week yelling, “Stand up and hit somebody!”

Meanwhile, Scotty Bowman, who was hired because of his experience in wars such as these, was being befuddled by a former soldier, Jacques Lemaire. Lemaire, right now, is making his old boss look like Custer. Bowman’s team — with new adjusted lines — degenerated into one big penalty by the third period. It was almost sad, a word you never thought you’d use with this club.

“In all my years in the playoffs, I’ve never been humiliated and embarrassed like we were tonight,” Bowman said after the 5-2 defeat. “That was totally unacceptable. It was an embarrassment to the NHL.”

Stunned. Shaken. Shattered. The Wings will say it’s not over yet, that three losses is not four losses. But the objective voice will tell you this: Unless the Devils rent their uniforms to some minor league team, this series is a done deal. It might have been decided just minutes into Thursday night, when a puck hit a loose stick and stopped alongside the Jersey net, as lonesome as a cowboy.

Kris Draper came flying in. He should have scored. But instead of flicking it past Martin Brodeur, he pushed it into the goalie’s outstretched stick. “I gotta make that,” a disgusted Draper said. “It was right there. Brodeur just made a Hail Mary.”

His prayers were answered.

Devils’ Night. What went wrong?

“They outplayed us right off the bat,” said a dismayed Steve Yzerman, after the collapse. “That’s something we talked about before the game. We wanted to come out big. We wanted to show we wouldn’t quit.”

Instead, it was the Devils taking the offensive, jumping on Detroit like a leopard from the bushes, absorbing the Wings’ weapons — as if beating them wouldn’t be enough, they had to capture their souls as well.

So instead of the celebrated Detroit offense, it was New Jersey firing on goal like snipers from a tall building, outshooting Detroit, 23-12, before the game went to garbage time.

And instead of Paul Coffey, Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov and the other players the Wings acquired to win games such as this, it was a guy the Wings gave away, Randy McKay, who scored the crusher.

And instead of Yzerman, the leader of this team, living up to a career-long wait, it was Claude Lemieux, who barely shows up in the regular season, scoring his 13th goal of the playoffs, and Scott Stevens, who was once rumored in a trade for Yzerman, getting two assists and banging everything that moved.

And instead of the high-priced, 32-year-old Vernon showing the savvy of his Stanley Cup experience, it was 23-year-old Martin Brodeur, in his first finals — earning the league’s minimum salary — shining in the net again.

The Devils, let’s face it, are awesome. They may be unloved, but they are well-coached, hard-hitting, big, strong and dedicated. They are staying together in a hotel, even here at home, a move that might have been smart for the Wings. The Devils can win by smothering you, and they proved Thursday they can win by pucking you to death.

“It’s not that we’re not playing our game,” Coffey sighed. “It’s that they’re not letting us play it. These guys play that system so well, they can do it in their sleep.”

Here was the final insult: Instead of octopi flying after goals, the Devils fans tossed, among other things, a lobster, a bluefish and an inflatable octopus toy, as if the Red Wings’ title dreams were something you could unplug and let the air out of.

Pffffffffft.

Stunned. Shaken. Shattered.

Where are the stars?

A few hours before the game, Vernon had sat outside the ice, dressed in black slacks and a white dress shirt, seemingly relaxed.

“I have to play a perfect game tonight,” he said, in a now sad piece of ironic quotation. “We all have to play a perfect game.”

They had to. They didn’t. Vernon, who is shopping for a new contract, saw his asking price plummet with this performance. You don’t win in the finals without a goalie in peak form, and the truth is, Vernon has been good-but-not-great all series. At the risk of being cruel, what kind of Big Game was that?

Then again, you could ask that of pretty much everyone on the Detroit roster. Coffey, a player I admire and love to watch, has just been smoked this series. He is nothing close to the way he played the first two rounds. He has more Stanley Cup rings than anyone on New Jersey. Where is the experience?

And Fedorov, the best player in hockey last season? He had a good night in Game 3, but one good night is not enough; Yzerman, another player we all admire, simply has not stepped up the way a Mark Messier, Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky did when his team got to the big room. You want to be compared to those guys, you have to behave like them.

Gretzky was on hand Thursday, because he is friends with Coffey and Fedorov. In the middle of this debacle, he was asked what he thought.

“I’m rooting for my friends,” he said, looking down, “but it’s gonna be tough. New Jersey is playing great.”

That the Devils are. Far better than Detroit. By the end, the Wings were scrumming and punching and venting frustration, as if this was some February night in Winnipeg. They are out of excuses. Out of explanations. And almost out of time.

“We just need to a win . . . just one win,” Dino Ciccarelli said.

It won’t matter. It may not even happen. Here’s a twist of fate: A series that Detroit fans waited 29 breathless years to see has crumbled into something that can’t end soon enough.

Stunned. Shaken. Shattered.

Who’d have thunk it?

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