IT’S A GIMME

When the going gets tough, the tough go stealing. Here came Pavel Datsyuk chasing a slow puck as it glided toward goalie Evgeni Nabokov. Usually, a play like this is a nothing, a throwaway, the goalie gets it first, swats it away, and things go the other direction, right?

But critical times, critical moves. The Red Wings and Sharks were locked in yet another wrestling match, body on body, stick on stick, barely a paper sheet’s distance between them. The score was tied. The series was tied. Something needed to snap.

And here it was: Nabokov had to come out beyond the crease, Datsyuk was charging, fans rose to their feet as if sensing a bullfight at the critical surge. The net was vulnerable. Now it was a race. Would Datsyuk get it? Would Nabokov get it? At the last instant – and this is what makes him a unique talent – Datsyuk gave up on the puck and zoomed left, playing the clearing pass instead. Nabokov was a blink slower. He swept the puck to his right before his eyes could tell his brain it was the wrong direction.

Smack! There was Datsyuk, like a net draping a fish. He intercepted the puck, knocked it down and chased it to the net. All Nabokov could do was watch helplessly, like a man who sees an important paper fly out the car window. Gone, baby, gone. Datsyuk flicked in the puck as if finishing a practice drill.

And that goal may have tipped the series.

Play the bounces. It has become a theme in this Western Conference semifinal, which the Wings can clinch with a victory Monday night in San Jose. Game 4 ended with Mathieu Schneider swatting down a pass and lining up a wicked shot. Earlier that night, Tomas Holmstrom had smacked a bouncing puck out of the air and into the net. With shot-blocking so increased, pucks off bodies is becoming a common story line.

And in a series this tight, all it takes is the right bounce, and the right guess.

The right kind of stats

“Was that like playing soccer and outguessing the goalie?” someone asked Datsyuk after Saturday’s 4-1 victory in Game 5.

“Maybe like baseball,” he said, grinning. Datsyuk often grins after games like these, as if his skills are a private joke between him and his native tongue. But make no mistake. That goal inflated the Wings as much as it deflated the Sharks. San Jose had dominated the first period and grabbed an early lead when Dominik Hasek made a rare mistake, allowing a pedestrian shot to get past him into the corner of the net.

But after Datsyuk flipped in his larceny goal, the day belonged to Detroit. You could feel it. As if Pavel stole fate along with rubber. By the final horn, the game was a lopsided affair, the only one yet in this back-and-forth series.

“Some good hand-eye coordination there,” Holmstrom joked about Datsyuk in the upbeat locker room. Holmstrom – he’s a pest, but he’s our pest – was all over this game as well, threading a beautiful pass to Henrik Zetterberg for the Wings’ first goal, taking an equally sweet feed from Zetterberg to whack in a power-play score himself.

“I’m just fortunate to play with those two guys,” he said. But the box score doesn’t read fortune. It reads effectiveness. And on Saturday it read the way Detroit box scores need to read for future playoff success: Datsyuk and Zetterberg all over it, a goal apiece, two assists apiece. Holmstrom with a goal and an assist.

Oh, yeah. And Hasek, one goal allowed, all the rest denied.

Reasons for concern

“I made a bad mistake in the first period,” Hasek said, “and their goalie made a bad mistake in the second period.”

The difference was, Hasek’s was his only bad play all game. A lot of goalies give up an easy shot early on, it spells disaster for the rest of the game. Not this guy.

“Pat Verbeek told me as soon as Dom got mad at himself, the game was over,” coach Mike Babcock said later, chuckling. “He just is mentally tough. He knows how to play and that’s why we’re always in the game. He’s gonna shut the door and give us a chance. And that’s what he did.”

If you – like me – have watched a lot of Red Wings playoff hockey, then you know there is a feeling with Hasek in the net that hasn’t been around here in a while. No knock on the men who guarded the tollbooth between Hasek’s stints. But the confidence that your goalie can steal you a game, or can hammer up the windows if you give him a small lead – well, Hasek does that. Let’s leave it there. He makes you believe. Minutes after he let in that first goal, he made several saves that were 10 times harder. That’s experience. That’s a calm head.

And that’s the good news. The bad news is that Schneider is gone, out the rest of the playoffs, because of a broken wrist suffered early in Saturday’s game. The Wings already were thin at defenseman. Now they are critically thin. Brett Lebda is still nursing his injury (he could return for Game 6), and who knows if Niklas Kronwall will see any action this postseason?

But when Chris Chelios logs nearly 26 minutes, you know depth is a problem. Chelios is a chronological miracle. I didn’t see him in the locker room afterward, but if I were his age – and I have been – I’d be hugging an oxygen machine.

All the more reason the Wings must end this Monday night. Playoff hockey is as much about what you don’t do as what you do, and so far the Wings have not allowed the San Jose building to intimidate them, they have not allowed falling behind to intimidate them, and now they cannot allow a 3-2 series lead to relax them. They do not want to come back to Detroit with one night to determine their fate.

After all, stealing is only fun if you’re not the victim.

And bounces are funny things.

SIDEBAR

Home, sweet home

Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg continued their playoff trend of excelling at home and struggling on the road:

HOME AWAY

G A P +/- G A P +/- Datsyuk 5 5 10 +7 0 0 0 -4 Zetterberg 4 4 8 +6 0 0 0 -4

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. He will sign copies of his latest best-seller, “For One More Day,” for Mother’s Day. On Friday: Noon at Borders in the downtown Compuware Building and 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Rochester Hills. On Saturday: 11 a.m. at Sam’s Club in Novi and 1:30 p.m. at Costco on Telegraph in Bloomfield.

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