HERE’S WHY WINGS LOST — AND HOW TO FIX THEM

Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman were 2,000 miles apart, but their view of the game was the same. Boxed. Lousy. And interrupted by commercials.

Both were watching on TV. Both wanted to lunge at the screen. Both were itching to play as badly as chicken pox kids gazing out a sunny window.

And neither one — thanks to a broken foot and a broken ankle — was going anywhere.

“I called Steve on his cell phone during the third period,” Shanahan said Tuesday, “and he called me at home after the game ended. We were both pretty depressed.”

That image, folks — a wounded Shanahan and Yzerman, talking on cell phones — should be the first thing you remember about this dismal Red Wings postseason.

Everyone says injury isn’t an excuse.

Oh, yeah?

It is when your two best players go out in the first game of the playoffs.

It is when one of those players is the team’s biggest leader, and the other guy is most likely to take the mantle.

It is when all four losses are by one goal, and the injured players are two of your best goal-scorers.

Don’t misunderstand. Losing Yzerman and Shanahan didn’t decree the Wings would lose to the Los Angeles Kings. But it sure made it possible. If that’s making excuses, well, then maybe we’re confusing facts with pride. When wouldn’t blaming injuries be an excuse? When the entire team came in on crutches?

Sure, it would have been better if other Detroit players lifted their games
(more on that in a moment), and, sure, the Red Wings’ defense should have been better around the net.

But these are the NHL playoffs — where the first round, which looks the easiest, is often the most dangerous. Combine Yzerman’s and Shanahan’s scratches with a better-than-advertised Kings team, and one of those collapsing moments that happens in the NHL and, well, you have what you have today in Hockeytown:

Baseball.

A round of upsets

“I looked at the Kings in that overtime period,” Shanahan said from his home, where he was essentially couch-ridden with his broken foot, “and you could see three or four guys who were excited, who were saying to themselves, ‘This could be my moment to shine.’ “

Right. Conversely, too many guys on the Red Wings seemed to be saying: “Uh-oh. This could be the moment we blow it.”

Fear took over fury. Dazed took over dazzle. The Wings played Game 5 of this series as if they still were playing Game 4. And they fell back into that trance late in Game 6 Monday night in Los Angeles.

By the time they snapped out of it, the season was over.

Now, if it makes you feel any better, this type of stunning, quick death has happened to other top teams. Dallas, a second seed — like the Wings this year
— went out in the first round in 1997. Colorado, a second seed, went out in the first round in 1998.

But that doesn’t help the Wings for next year.

Which brings us back, in a roundabout way, to Yzerman’s injury. It was devastating because of the way he plays — but it also revealed a flaw in the Wings’ makeup that needs to be addressed.

Yzerman often is referred to as “the heart and soul” of this team. Maybe it’s true. But let’s be honest: That doesn’t leave much for anyone else.

I mean, if you lose your heart and soul, what do you win with? Your pancreas?

The Wings, in this playoff series, lacked anyone willing to assume the throne and direct the kingdom. Perhaps because Yzerman casts such a large shadow, perhaps because the players look up to him so much, who knows?

But nobody seemed to know quite how to react with him gone. This is odd, since the Wings played so much of the season with him missing.

Then again, it wasn’t the best part of their season.

And it wasn’t the playoffs.

And Shanahan was there.

With Shanahan (who gimped through Game 5) and Yzerman out, this L.A. series could have been a golden opportunity for another Red Wing to step up and show his moxie. There were five games in which he could have grabbed the wheel. Five games for him to yell, “Follow me, boys!”

Nobody did.

Not Martin Lapointe, who for years has been tabbed as the guy most likely to wear Yzerman’s whistle.

Not Sergei Fedorov, who for all his speed and numbers, is an inspired player but not an inspiring one.

Not Kirk Maltby, not Darren McCarty, not Kris Draper — the Grind Line, in fact, didn’t have a point until Game 6.

While fans were looking at Yzerman’s injury as a tragedy, someone in a Wings uniform needed to look at it as an opportunity.

And it’s that kind of player the Wings should be looking for in this off-season.

A plan of action

Yes, I said off-season — but not off-with-their-heads season. Some Wings fans want the team dismantled, top to bottom, but that is neither smart nor realistic. First of all, it’s not like Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Osgood, Igor Larionov, Pat Verbeek, Chris Chelios or Fedorov suddenly became lousy players.

And, despite Osgood’s quotes after Game 5 that certain players needed to show more heart, I seriously doubt that men who played with zest and fire all season suddenly decided to mail it in.

Besides, you can’t have a fire sale. Teams would pick apart the carcass.

“I’m imagining there are clubs salivating at the idea of stealing some players from the Red Wings in a moment of frustration,” Shanahan said. “I think
(general manager) Kenny Holland is too smart for that.”

This is not a time for frustration. It’s a time for evaluation. The Wings need to change the chemistry, absolutely. They need to get the stench of this playoff exit out of the locker room.

But when they restock they should aim less for name than for attitude. It is not an accident that L.A.’s Adam Deadmarsh, not the fastest, richest or most famous of players, has killed the Red Wings as part of two different franchises now. He is a guy who churns and churns, doesn’t do the spectacular, but somehow, when it needs to be done, is spectacularly effective.

The Wings need more of that. They need some players who respect Yzerman but want to replace him. That is healthy. It’s the way sports works. It’s how leaders are born.

The Wings lacked leaders in this series after Game 2. They lacked a certain confidence. They lacked a taste for the jugular. They lacked a scoring attack at full strength, and they lacked a knock-’em-down philosophy near their own net.

But more than anything, they lacked their two star players. Sorry, but they did. Take Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr from the Penguins and tell them it’s no excuse. Take Mike Modano and Brett Hull from the Stars and tell them they’re still the same.

Yzerman and Shanahan on cell phones says it all. You can spout brave quotes. You can spit and shrug. You can fall back on that old standby and declare,
“Injuries are part of the game.”

So is losing. And anyone who doesn’t see a connection here is blind.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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