ST. LOUIS — Hold the applause. The Red Wings may have won a game, but they have not earned cheers, not yet, and they will be the first to admit it. You don’t get anything for losing in seven games, no more than you do for losing in six, and this nerve-racking hockey series is still perched on the edge of a very high cliff. The only difference now is that both teams are out there together: one blue, one red.
That’s red, not dead.
“All we did was give ourselves a chance to play another game of hockey,” said Kris Draper, who scored the biggest goal in the 4-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues, which kept the Detroit season alive, forced a decisive Game 7, and, at least for the time being, kept certain fans from sticking their heads in the oven.
But for those who wish to send Draper and company a big “Thank you,” for Game 6, well, with all due respect, no thanks are necessary — because none has been earned. The Wings still have plenty to worry about, as anyone who almost fainted during the last three minutes Tuesday night can tell you.
Don’t misunderstand. There was much to admire. Here, in a thumping building with signs reading “Bye, Bye Octopi,” was a serious Detroit effort, with players willing to drop and take a puck in the face to stop a shot, as Bob Rouse did in the second period, slicing open his forehead, fracturing a bone.
There was splendid goaltending — until the final minutes, anyhow — from young Chris Osgood, who continues to play well beyond his baby-face years, and there was marvelous penalty killing by the Wings’ biggest names. And yes, for a blessed change, there was opportunistic scoring, with Igor Larionov getting his stick on a shot and redirecting it past Blues goalie Jon Casey, and Dino Ciccarelli nubbing a Paul Coffey shot into pay dirt.
And there was the biggest play of the night, from — of all people — Draper. The redhead, acquired by the Wings for a dollar, scored a goal that was worth a million, stealing a bad pass from Casey and storming back at him, whacking home a two- goal lead, which was the first time in days that I actually saw the Red Wings breathe.
“That was huge,” said captain Steve Yzerman. “It was nice to finally be playing with a lead.”
Red, not dead.
Now, Yzerman and others were quick to point out that winning three games is not the same as winning four. The captain was asked about his “guarantee” that the Wings would return for Game 7, and he chuckled. “All that happened was that someone asked me if I thought we’d played our last game at Joe Louis Arena and I said no, we hadn’t. And I feel the same way now. I’m never going to think we’re supposed to lose this series.”
The truth is, they are not. They are not supposed to lose a series to the Blues, they are not supposed to lose four in a row to them, and they are not supposed to lose four out of five to them. Hey, the difference between these two teams in the regular season was 51 points. How big a margin is that? There were years, not so long ago, when the Wings did not earn 51 points total.
So hold the applause. You will be forgiven for waiting, for crossing your arms, sitting on your hands, holding the back- slaps until you see what happens Thursday night. The fact is, the Wings themselves are doing the same.
Remember, this is a team that didn’t want to make big deal out of winning the Central Division, and even refused a group photo after breaking the all-time NHL regular-season record for victories. “We haven’t done anything,” they said, shrugging, “if we haven’t won the Cup.”
Well then, they certainly haven’t done anything by simply holding off disaster for a night. And as anyone who watched Tuesday’s 3-0 lead turn quickly to a 3-2 hold-on-and-look-out- finish — well, you know there is no such thing as relaxing until the final horn has happily sounded.
So while it was sweet for Wings fans to see the Blues held in check for most of the night, and to see Wayne Gretzky returned to planet Earth, and to see a Detroit Russian finally score, and to see Coffey get back into things, and to see the referee actually call penalties again, it will all be for naught if Thursday night is another weird, cursed evening.
And it is not without precedent. Three years ago, the Wings came back from a 3-2 deficit against Toronto, tied the series, then came home and lost it.
You remember that, don’t you?
Ah, ah, ah, get your head out of the oven. . . .
Now, there may prove to be one good thing about this series — should it end in victory. The Wings will have faced the hardest stone the devil can throw in the playoffs — not just elimination, but embarrassing elimination — and they will have survived. This could serve them well down the line, if they get in another win-or-else situation. Last year, before the embarrassing finals sweep, the toughest series the Wings had was a five-game affair with Chicago. They advanced to the championship round in a mere 14 games.
Thursday night, they play their 13th game of this post- season — just to get out of the second round!
“We’ll need this experience,” Ciccarelli said, sounding like a man who now planned on using it. Two days ago, the Wings couldn’t breathe. Today they are simply waiting to exhale.
Before the team left for St. Louis, I asked Draper for a prediction.
“Well,” he said, smiling, “Let’s hope Lady Luck hops on Redbird One on our way down. “
Now, let’s hope she took the return flight back.