HOCKEY IS THE CRUELEST GAMETO STAY ALIVE, WINGS NEED PASSION — AND PATIENCE

After he missed the shot that might have changed everything, after he watched it ping off the post and flick harmlessly away, Brendan Shanahan skated to the bench, balled his fists, and clapped himself on the head.

Arrrrrrrgh.

“I was thinking, ‘How did that not go in?’ ” Shanahan said Tuesday, as he drove to the airport for what may be the Red Wings’ final game of the season
— or their most courageous victory yet. “The net was so open and I was so sure, that as I skated away, I almost raised my arms to celebrate.”

Instead, he clapped his head. It has been that narrow a margin. Hands up in celebration. Hands clapped in frustration. Tonight, against Colorado at Denver’s Pepsi Center, the Red Wings will walk a razor’s edge between the two. An elimination game, in which all it takes is everything you have, but not all at once.

Can you imagine desiring something more than anything else in the world, but knowing that wanting it too much may repel you away, like two magnets trying to kiss?

“We can’t press. We can’t worry. We can’t be thinking, ‘Man, what happens if we lose?’ ” Shanahan said.

How the heart approaches what it yearns. Tonight will be the Wings’ most difficult emotional challenge, to dangle above the fires of elimination yet pretend they don’t feel the heat. Try doing that when the air is thin and your chest is heaving and your hair is soaked with sweat and nearly 20,000 fans are raining hate down on your head and your opponent — your annoyingly fast and opportunistic opponent — already has crept inside your brain and yanked a few wires and made you wonder about that which you were once so sure, that your team was better, that you were going to win?

Want it all, but not too much.

Passion? Meet patience.

“After the game Monday night, our locker room was as angry as I’ve seen it all year,” Shanahan said. “We were angry because we felt we deserved to win, we were angry because we had them back on their heels, we were angry because we had all kinds of chances in their end — and then they get one rush, one lucky pass that isn’t even meant for the guy, one great chance, and they score.”

He sighed.

“And now we have to forget about it.”

It is no coincidence that the words “trying” and “dying” are only a few letters apart.

The missed opportunities

Perhaps no one has felt their intersection more in the Western Conference finals than Shanahan, a charismatic superstar who led the team in goals this regular season, and who has a career’s worth of depositing big pucks at big times. He’s won two Stanley Cups, he won an Olympic gold medal a few months ago, yet he has not scored in this series. And for some, that makes him symbolic of the failure of the Wings’ “big guns.”

On the other hand, Shanahan has had a number of huge chances — not the least of which was that shot with less than two minutes left Monday night, a shot which, on the replay, showed a defender’s stick nicking it just as he launched it at the net.

If Shanahan is getting shots like that, it means he is doing something right, and so are his teammates. In hockey, you worry first about chances, then about cashing in.

“If I had been playing terribly and someone banged a puck off my head and it went in, would I take it?” Shanahan asked rhetorically. “Sure. Would I be happy about it? Sure. Would it mean I was playing any better? No.

“But I’d take it. And so would anybody on our team.”

In fact, if they could make it happen, they would.

Then again, have you ever tried to bang a puck in off of someone’s head?

It’s almost as hard as figuring out how the Avalanche keep coming up with a winner.

The slimmest of margins

And so it boils down to this: tonight. Nothing else. One game. One more chapter to be written in this storied series.

Until that ink dries, finger-pointing will be easy. In some cases, even therapeutic. Fans need to blame something, because the outcome is so frustratingly out of their control.

So they can blame the goaltending. They can say that Dominik Hasek has been excellent, but not as phenomenal as Patrick Roy.

They can blame the goal-scorers — like Shanahan and Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille — who have not fired a shot past Roy when it mattered.

They can blame the defense, for allowing Colorado too many rushes through the neutral zone.

They can even blame the coaching, for failing to shadow the Avs’ players who hurt the Wings the most.

But ask yourself this: If Shanahan had scored that goal in Game 5, and Detroit was up, 3-2, instead of down, would they still be saying the same things?

Or would the Avalanche fans be saying them?

Here’s a news flash: The Wings don’t care who scores, as long as they have one more goal than Colorado. This series has been about seizing the moment, and to date the Wings have done it once in overtime, thanks to Fredrik Olausson, and once in the third period, thanks to Darren McCarty. The Avs, meanwhile, have done it twice in overtime, and once in the third period.

If you count it all up, it’s the slimmest of margins. It’s just that the Avs are getting their glow from their superstars and, for better or worse, people expect superstars to deliver. So Shanahan and his teammates flew out West on Tuesday, and tried to dump all the bad memories somewhere over the Rocky Mountains.

“All ride home Monday I kept thinking, ‘Come on, how did I not score?’ and then I said, ‘Come on, forget it, get past it,’ ” Shanahan admitted. “You know, our team has played absolutely good hockey this series. We haven’t had one game where we’ve been flat. We’ve come back constantly from one-goal deficits. We just have to think about winning one game.”

He paused.

“And once we take care of Game 6, then we’ll take care of Game 7.”

Hands up, or hands on your head? It’s as simple as walking during an avalanche, or holding an egg with boxing gloves. All it takes is touch, nerves and a little bit of a miracle.

And, having succeeded, coming back Friday and doing it again.

See you at 8.

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). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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