HULL-ACIOUS!HULL NETS GAME-WINNER; ANOTHER WIN NETS CUPTHESE NUMBERS TELL THE STORY FOR THE WINGS

RALEIGH, N.C. — It was only a number. It was only one shot. And Brett Hull has taken a million shots in nearly two decades in this league. But here he was Monday in the Stanley Cup finals, taking a beautiful feed from Boyd Devereaux, dropping to one knee and firing away. The “ping” off the post was like a magic password that opened the trap door. The puck ricocheted into the net, a secret tree house appeared, and Hull climbed into a very exclusive club.

It was only a number, but what a number, his 100th goal in the NHL playoffs, a mark reached by only three other men. Hull made history, all right. But it wasn’t history that made him leap into his teammates’ arms. It was the 1-0 lead he provided. It was the small push of this piano-heavy force that they are collectively trying to shove across the finish line.

“How did it feel, joining that club?” someone asked Hull after the electric 3-0 victory Monday night over Carolina that moved the Red Wings to within one triumph of the Stanley Cup.

“Well, it’s amazing to think about the people I’ve joined,” he said, referring to Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Jari Kurri, “but on this team, if you don’t get one goal or if you get five, it’s the same, as long as you win.”

He smiled. “You know, there was a time when people said you couldn’t win a Stanley Cup with Brett Hull on your team, and . . .”

“Wait,” interjected Brendan Shanahan, who was sitting nearby. “Did you just refer to yourself in the third person?”

“I was trying to give myself a pat on the back.”

“Oh, OK. If you have 100 playoff goals you can do that.”

They both laughed. A team.

Here they come, folks, returning home on the wings of three straight victories in these finals. Hull’s special number Monday was indeed just part of his team’s story. And Hull, a guy who, incredibly, was unsigned and barely pursued after last season, continued his run as a mature force at critical junctures. He had a hat trick to close out the Vancouver series. He had six points against Colorado. He had a huge goal late Saturday in Game 3 to save the Wings from defeat.

That shot, near the end of regulation, took the life out of the Hurricanes’ and their noisy crowd. They were still smarting Monday night when Hull did it again, 6 1/2 minutes into the second period.

It was only a number. It was just one shot.

One big, big shot.

Don’t forget Hasek

It was only a number. A zero on the scoreboard. A shutout. And Dominik Hasek has had more shutouts than you can count — six in these playoffs alone. But this one had resonance. This was like a war cry, heard throughout the whole of North Carolina, because Hasek has only gotten stronger as this post-season rolls on.

Here he was Monday, making sharp saves, making hard saves, getting lucky when he needed luck, being good when he needed good. He stopped all 17 of the Carolina shots, a virtual plug in the net. But it was a moment out of the net that put the stamp on this night.

It happened in the second period, when Chris Chelios fell trying to defend speedy Erik Cole, and suddenly Cole was free and alone and heading to pay dirt. Hasek did not hesitate. He drifted out from the net in typical maddening fashion, like a rogue cop, like a daredevil, committing to no man’s land, no cover, no backup, by himself — “What are you doing!” you could hear the Detroit fans screaming — and suddenly it was the lonely 37-year-old Czech with all his bulky padding and slow-moving skates, against a speeding New York kid almost young enough to be his son.

Hasek sprawled. Cole tried to cut past him. But Hasek’s stick was in the right place, it worked like a snow plow, it swallowed the puck, even as Cole, on momentum, flew on naked to the net, a stripped bird. Hasek poked the puck away, then rose triumphantly and eased backward into his cage.

“Do you feel like you’re getting stronger?” Hasek was asked after Monday’s shutout.

“No stronger,” he said, “but just as strong as when I started. I am not doing anything different.

“And I do not want to do anything different.”

It was only a number. It was only one shutout.

But man, what a time for a shutout.

End of the line

It is only a number. The loneliest number. One. As in one game. One more to end it, one more to bring it home, one more page to turn, one more entry in the hockey ledger, one more night of leaving it all out on the ice.

Which is exactly what the Red Wings won’t be thinking.

“Now it’s just a matter of staying away from the hoopla,” coach Scotty Bowman said. “As soon as this game was over our guys were warning each other. You go home and your good friends and your relatives and they’re all well-meaning and they want to be there when you win — but that doesn’t help you play.

“We have to shut that down.”

The Wings need only thwart the hype and thwart the Hurricanes. One more time and the Stanley Cup is theirs. All signs point toward it. They finally opened up Monday night, getting three goals — including the long-awaited drought-ender by Shanahan — and three goals in this series is a geyser.

They played their most complete finals game. Their confidence is oozing. Their offense is getting fresher when it should be tiring, and their defense is every bit as stingy as Carolina’s. You can sense the Hurricanes slowly recognizing the inevitable: They can stop any Red Wing, they just can’t stop them all.

“The fourth game is the hardest to win,” Kris Draper cautioned.

Perhaps. And yes, the Hurricanes will tell themselves they had bad luck, clanging a couple of shots off the post. But guess what? The Wings specialized in hitting the post in Game 3, and they still managed to win that one. These are the finals. You make your own luck.

And you make your own story.

One shot. One shutout. One game. They were all just numbers, but numbers add up. And if you collect them just right, they turn to letters.

And the letters spell “g-l-o-r-y.”

The players won’t say it, but the rest of us will. Get ready. You can feel that glory, on the wings of a red-and-white airplane, coming home, and planning to stay.

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).

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