As the last notes of the “Star-Spangled Banner” hung in the air Thursday night, an octopus came flying out of the stands and went splat. Calgary’s Stephane Yelle skated over in curiosity. He stood there, leaning on his stick, peering at the slimy creature, as if he’d never seen something tangled up on the ice before.
Well, if he hadn’t before the game, he certainly had by the end. This was one of those playoff openers in which each team seemed a bit wrapped around the other — kind of like those rubbery octopus tentacles — and one break, one bounce, one mistake or one fluky play was going to decide it.
And, swallow hard, Red Wings fans, here it was: Less than three minutes into overtime, score tied 1-1, Calgary’s Martin Gelinas made a wild spin behind the Detroit net, blindly passed out in front, and someone named Marcus Nilson fired high as he went to one knee. The puck flew over the left shoulder of Curtis Joseph, and just like that, bang-bang you’re dead. The night was over, the Wings were behind, the old demons of a slow series start were swirling. And certain fans went gulping into the night.
Brace yourself, Hockeytown. What you saw in Game 1 is what you are likely to see in Game 2, Game 3 or Game 7. This will be a series of small things, small plays and small maneuvers, small moments that make up one big moment that, more often than not, will constitute the margin of victory. Don’t despair. The Wings played well much of the night. This was not some sort of team collapse. Yes, their power play went flat (0-for-6) and yes, Calgary’s hot goalie, Miikka Kiprusoff, played terrifically, letting just one puck get past him, and yes, Joseph, the Wings’ goalie, let two go past him — no doubt those will be debated as you read this — and that was that. One game. One loss. One or two little things.
Brendan Shanahan saw it coming before they even dropped the puck.
“Ours is a team that has a lot of guys used to scoring,” he said earlier this week, “but there’s not going to be a lot of scoring in this series. We’re going to have to win games 1-0 or 2-1, and that means for most of the guys — even the scorers — success may mean blocking a pass, or digging out a loose puck, or catching something off a rebounded shot. And we’re going to have to be happy with that.”
Oh, yeah. He also said this:
“Calgary is the team nobody wanted to face in the playoffs.”
Walks and bunts
“We lost this game because of our power play,” coach Dave Lewis said in the press room afterward. “We had a 1-0 lead, and if we can get one more, it’s big, going up 2-0 would have been huge. That’s how we won games during the season.”
But this is not the season. Goals are as hard to come by now as members of the Manning family who want to play in San Diego.
It’s true, there is a sense of wasted talent in this. Here you have a Red Wings team with Brett Hull, who has more points in the playoffs than anyone else still active in the NHL, and Steve Yzerman, who is right behind Hull on that list, and Robert Lang, who for much of the year led the league in scoring, and Shanahan, headed for the Hall of Fame, mostly for his offense, and point-racker-uppers like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom and with all that, yes, with all that, you still are going to see games won with two goals, maybe one. Everyone else must do the small stuff.
Imagine if you had the Yankees’ Murderers Row, and you had to tell them each night, “OK, fellas, only one of you gets to hit, the rest of you, go for walks or bunts.”
But these are the NHL playoffs. That’s how it works. The Wings came close Thursday night, they peppered Kiprusoff early — they even saw a goal by Kirk Maltby waved off for interference — but as the misses mounted, so did the Calgary confidence.
“We did what I knew we would do,” Flames coach Darryl Sutter said. “We showed our grit. We fought back.”
Remember, this is a Calgary team that rallied from a 4-0 hole only to lose in triple overtime in Game 6 against Vancouver, then went on the road and won Game 7 in overtime. That was Monday night. Next thing the Flames knew, they were on a plane heading to Detroit.
Which, of course, is what makes them dangerous. You don’t like to feed an underdog team with a growing sense of momentum. Several teams learned that the hard way last year against Anaheim.
It’s true, as Lewis said, the goals scored on Joseph were not easy to stop —
“He was screened on the first one by several guys (a wicked rising shot by Robyn Regehr) and in overtime, you know, anything can happen, it was a bang-bang play.”
And just like that, the Wings surrender home-ice advantage.
Have they endured this before? Sure. Are they in trouble? No. Would it be nice if there wasn’t always drama against these lower seeds? Yes. But it wouldn’t be hockey then, would it?
A time to hate
Be honest. You weren’t really wired for these Flames, were you? You figured the evil henchmen of Colorado would be here, and you could get your boo bird on. You figured you’d be jeering Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote. Be honest. You figured on booing Patrick Roy, and he’s retired.
Instead, we have the Flames of Calgary, a place that is known for its stampedes and its mountains and an oddly shaped arena that some see as a saddle, and others see as a crushed beer can.
Instead of Forsberg and Joe Sakic, we have Jarome Iginla, a big-market talent on a small-market team, and Kiprusoff, a 27-year-old stunner who last year was a backup in San Jose and this year is a Vezina Trophy finalist. The Fantastic Finn broke the modern record for goals-against average (1.69) this year. And he played extremely well Thursday night, stopping 28 shots and holding the Wings to one Lang goal.
“We knew we were going to have to hold Detroit off early,” Sutter said. “And we did.”
They’re not Colorado, but give them time. If the games keep going into overtime, you’ll hate the Flames soon enough. And trust me, before it’s over, this series is gonna get as messy as a certain slimy eight-armed friend.
Come to think of it, it already has.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He will sign copies of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” at 7 p.m. April 30 at Borders in Novi; at 11 a.m. May 1 at The Open Book, 118 S. Front, Fremont, Ohio; at 2 p.m. May 1 at Barnes & Noble, 4940 Monroe, Toledo; and at noon May 7 at Borders in downtown Detroit. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.