by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The hinges are coming loose, the rusty bolts are rattling and the door that for more than four decades has separated Detroit from the coveted Stanley Cup is about to shatter into a million pieces. The Red Wings earned their third victory of this championship series Thursday night with a force that could burst a dam, a defense that could hold back time, and a speedy confidence that bordered on destiny. So mighty was their domination of the dazed and confused Philadelphia Flyers that the Wings scored their goals as if chosen from an assortment pack:

Steve Yzerman on a classic slap shot. Bang! Red light! Sergei Fedorov on a steal and a shot. Bang! Red light! Martin Lapointe on a perfect feed. Red light! Fedorov again on a rebound. Red light! Brendan Shanahan — perhaps tired of the conventional methods — standing behind the net, ricocheting the puck off the Flyers goaltender.

Red lights, all night long. Heck, even the goaltender, Mike Vernon, got an assist. The goaltender?

The door comes tumbling down.

This championship series, which had been overanalyzed early on, had now better squeeze in all the analysis it can, for it may only have one game left. The Wings, in winning Game 3, 6-1, Thursday night, have not only remained perfect against the Flyers, scored 14 goals in this series, and rattled the very rafters of Joe Louis Arena, they have also performed a sweet act of alchemy:

They’ve turned “if” into “when.”

The door comes tumbling down.

“Have you ever been around a team this focused?” someone asked Doug Brown after the Game 3 victory.

“And let’s hope it stays that way,” Brown deadpanned.

Now, that’s focus. It was everywhere Thursday night. Perhaps, it was foretold in the pregame introductions. The wild and raucous sellout Detroit crowd, witnessing the first Stanley Cup finals victory in this city in 33 years, chose a higher road than Flyers fans — who yelled “SUCKS!” whenever Wings players were introduced in Philly. Instead, Detroiters chanted “LETS GO WINGS!” over every Flyers name. The effect rendered Philadelphia a team that really didn’t matter.

And the Flyers certainly played that way. I don’t know what happened to all that Philly muscle, but the Flyers should get a refund from their Nautilus clubs. Eric Lindros? Where? John LeClair? Where? This is not a battle anymore, it’s a coronation. All that’s missing is the crown and the throne.

“We’re not thinking about what one more win will do for the city, or for us or for anything else,” Shanahan said. “We’re just thinking of one more win.”

Isn’t that the perfect attitude? Instead of taking a breath Thursday night, the Wings were like a well-prepared student taking his driving test. Speed? Check. Defense? Check. Goaltending? Check. Power play? Check. Penalty-killing? Ha! At one point, the Wings played nearly a minute and a half with a two-man disadvantage. You know how many goals Philly scored? Zero. You know how many shots Philly got off? Zero.

Check, check, check. The Wings are doing everything a championship team is supposed to do, and their superstars are scoring goals in bunches. Yzerman, Fedorov, Shanahan. Even Lapointe had two. Remember when the problem with this team was finding someone who would put the biscuit in the basket?

Now they have to get in line.

Sergei’s night of nights

You could spend all morning talking about the stellar efforts of the Wings. But a special word here for Fedorov, who scored his first goal of the night on a stolen puck, a sprint and a shot right through a flailing Ron Hextall. It was vintage Sergei, done by himself, with opposing players gasping for air and reading his number from behind.

His second score was another perfect position. Slava Kozlov moved in on Hextall, closer, closer, untouched, then fired a breathing-distance shot. It ricocheted off the goalie’s stick, came out top to Fedorov, who rifled it past him for the big red light.

“Sometimes people think I am not trying because I am not in corners all the time,” Fedorov told me last week. “But maybe best way for me to help team is to watch and wait, then, at the very right moment, get like red hot metal.”

He did that Thursday night. He played hard and fast and was all over the ice. Let’s face it. He’s been doing that the latter half of the postseason.
“A great playoff,” admitted the usually reserved Scotty Bowman.

Fedorov has so much pure, unfiltered talent, that you simply cannot discount him, even if you haven’t noticed him for a while. He has risen to the top when he was needed the most, and for those of you who remember when this was exactly his problem, well, things change, don’t they? Last time in the finals, in 1995 against New Jersey, the Wings were swept. This time, they are likely to do the sweeping.

And Fedorov, of all people, may wield the broom. His speed is impossible for the Flyers to defend, and his stick-handling quickness makes him a demon on defense.

“Are you saving your best for last?” I asked Fedorov after the game.

“Yep,” he said, in his best American.

Give the man his due. He has carried his load.

End of the line

And now a word for Philadelphia. Waterloo. This is a team that is low on players, low on confidence, really low on goaltending, and down to fumes of whatever joy it felt coming into this series less than one week ago. Thursday was supposed to be the turnaround for Terry Murray’s soldiers. Thursday was the night they got out of Philadelphia, the night they got mean, the night they shed the pressures of Brotherly Love and hunkered down to fight in the town that gave chrome and steel a good name.

But that was talk, and talk is just talk. When they took the ice, the Flyers were the same Flyers they have been so far in this series, too slow to the puck, too weak around the net, too unstructured to match the snappy system the Red Wings have mastered.

So even a one-goal Flyers lead — their first lead of this series — only lasted two minutes. And by the end of the first period, three goals had been given up by Hextall. (It was Hextall, right? I have a hard time keeping these goalies straight.) And three goals is one more than Vernon has surrendered in any finals game so far.

That didn’t bode well.

So this is how it looks. The Flyers are dusted and crusted. They may yet win a game, but it will only be for pride. And to be honest, no one should be shocked. For all the analysis in this series, not enough people have pointed out that this is the second trip to the finals for most of these Red Wings, and the first as a team for these Flyers. Sure, there are individuals with championship experience on the Flyers, but what matters is when you go as a unit, what you learn, how you can count on a locker room full of unified emotion.

The Wings had it coming in. The Flyers will have it going out.

“Losing,” Darren McCarty said, “is the best teacher.”

The Wings know. They still hurt from the sweep in New Jersey.

Of course, the chants of “SWEEP, SWEEP, SWEEP” are making the boo-boo go bye-bye.

But enough for now. One more victory is necessary, and as Shanahan said after Game 1, Game 2 and now Game 3, “Nobody is celebrating. We need to do what we always do: Get our skates off, get out of here and come back and get the next one.”

Fans understand. If you’ve waited 42 years, you can wait one more night.

But know this, if you don’t already: Inevitability has draped this series like a red-and-white sweater, and the city wakes up today feeling like a family on the morning of a happy wedding. Good things loom. Very good things.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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