Where did the air go?

In a few choking seconds — the time it takes for two men to streak down the ice with only one defender between them — the Red Wings’ season went from a roar to a gasp. A puck goes in, a light goes on, and now the Avalanche goes home needing one victory in three tries to move on in the playoffs.

And the Red Wings must win three straight, or shave the beards and head for the golf courses.

“What was said in the locker room when this ended?” someone asked Brendan Shanahan, after the Wings lost a lead, then lost the game, 3-2, in overtime, to fall in a desperate 3-1 hole in this Western Conference semifinal.

“What was said?” he repeated, shaking his head. “Not a word.”

What could be said? How exactly did this slip away so fast? On a night when hopes were high, confidence was strong, and a victory was less than five minutes from the books, the Wings watched it disintegrate on two goals, one fluky, the other deadly.

The first came on a bad bounce, a ricochet off goalie Chris Osgood that he tried to scoop away and never quite cleared from the danger zone.

The second, however, just over 10 minutes into Wednesday night’s overtime, was less about chance and more about taking chances. Steve Duchesne, a Wings defenseman, perhaps trying too hard to make something happen, pinched up along the boards, leaving his rear flank unguarded. This is a little like a night watchman’s leaving his post to see what that noise was outside.

Adam Deadmarsh of Colorado made him pay. He poked the puck past the Wings’ defender, and suddenly, Duchesne wasn’t going forward, he was scrambling backward, and it was too late.

Deadmarsh’s puck went to Peter Forsberg, deadly all series, who took it down the ice with young Chris Drury on his opposite side. And only Chris Chelios between them. The crowd rose in dreaded anticipation. Forsberg and Drury bore in like fighter pilots, waiting until Chelios committed. When he did, Forsberg passed off, and Drury, a 23-year-old kid out of Connecticut, dragged the puck long enough to get Osgood flat on the ice, then smacked it into the open net with a finality that sucked the breath out of Joe Louis Arena.

Where did the air go?

“We felt like we had this game with 4 1/2 minutes to go,” Shanahan said.
“We’re disappointed it got away from us…. “

He stopped and considered his words. He looked around at the other Red Wings, their heads down, sweating through their suits, heading quickly to the bus that would take them to the airport.

“We don’t have time to be disappointed,” he said.

A wild night at the Joe

This was not what Detroit fans had in mind. Here was a night when the Wings seemed poised to tie this best-of-seven series. They had bounced back nicely from the two defeats in Colorado. And they seemed relaxed and ready. More than ready. They even caught a break, when Ray Bourque, the tinder behind the Avalanche’s recent fire, was declared out of Game 4 with a knee injury.

But if the Avalanche missed Bourque, it didn’t show. The Wings got more shots than Colorado — 32-21 — but it seemed as if the Avs had just as many good opportunities.

The regulation part of the evening was a series of falls, pulls, yanks, tugs, shoves, trips, slips — and silence. The silence was the referees’ contribution. One penalty per team in the first period and none in the second. None? Is that possible? Between Detroit and Colorado? These teams hate each other so much they draw penalties in practice.

In the third period, however, the refs woke up. Or maybe they felt they weren’t earning their paychecks. Then, nearly halfway through the period, Deadmarsh was nabbed for high-sticking Pat Verbeek (although it might only have been the blood on Verbeek’s ear, neck and shoulder that made the refs call it). This gave the Wings four minutes of a power play.

They needed only eight seconds.

Slava Kozlov, who had been ineffective most of the playoffs and benched for Game 3, was in perfect position near the net for a rebound off a Sergei Fedorov shot. Kozlov swept the puck through Patrick Roy’s legs, and the Wings were up, 2-1.

The feeling in the building, at that moment, was that this game was over. Perhaps too many memories of Monday’s Game 3, when a 2-1 score meant it was. This time, however, Colorado had another trick. With 4:27 left in regulation, a flipping push shot by Milan Hejduk came off Osgood, dropped by his right foot, and he tried to scoop it out with his stick.

Bad decision. He scooped it partly into his skate, just as Dave Andreychuk was slapping his stick. The force of the two sent the puck back into the net, and the Wings back into a tie.

“I wouldn’t say that took the air out of us,” Shanahan said. “But it gave a lot of life to them.”

From that point on, overtime seemed inevitable.

And we all know what happens in overtime.

The road to Denver — twice

What happens? Fluky things. Unpredictable things. A bad bounce here. A bad pass there. The Wings had a brilliant chance to win the game when Duchesne fired a hard slap shot that came off Roy and landed right in front of him — and just inches from Kozlov.

But as fate would have it, Kozlov was going across the crease. The puck dropped just behind him, and by the time he was able to twist his body, the opening had closed, the window had shut, and the Wings’ best shot at tying this series was gone.

A few minutes later, so was the game.

So now it’s win three in a row or exit in the second round for the second straight year. That is not a fate that a championship team is used to facing. And the Wings still think of themselves as a championship team.

Is it impossible, what they must do now? No. It has been done. But rarely. And it doesn’t bode well that, in order to do it, the Wings will have to make two road trips, and win twice in Rocky Mountain air.

You want to assign fault? Blame the Wings for breathing too easily. When you’re down 0-2 — as the Wings were when they came home a few days ago — you have no time to let up, no time to feel confident, no time to rest on your laurels. There was a feeling, perhaps too soon Wednesday night — 4 1/2 minutes left to be exact — that the work was done.

It’s never done until the last horn sounds. The Wings know that too well this morning. That final horn echoes like a banshee yowl in their ears. And they are left, as are their fans, wondering why it’s so darn hard to breathe all of a sudden.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 6:30-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).

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