You could feel the walls closing in, like one of those black-and-white horror movies. Joe Louis Arena was actually getting smaller, tighter, shrinking like a leaky balloon. The Dallas Stars had just scored a fluke goal, the puck had banged in off Bob Errey’s skate, and here we were again, first round of the playoffs, first game against an inferior team, it’s the third period, and the score is suddenly tied.

“Oh, God,” you could hear the fans moan. If buildings wore collars, the whole place would have been gasping.

Except the Red Wings’ bench.

Which is why this year’s story will be different from the others.

“There was nobody saying, ‘Oh, no, oh, no!’ when they tied it up,” Darren McCartey said, after the Wings came back to win the playoff opener, 4-3, over Dallas. “Maybe last year we would have panicked a little.

“But this year we just said, ‘OK, it’s a 12-minute hockey game. No problem. Let’s win the 12-minute hockey game.”

The question Detroit is most afraid of is the one it most wants answered.
“Will the Wings blow another great year?” The players can say they don’t think about it; they can say they don’t talk about it. That’s fine. You can say the same thing about your shadow; it still doesn’t go away.

So Sunday was a good sign. Had this been last year — when the Wings were eliminated by lowly San Jose — Sunday’s tying goal might have felt like a noose. This year, it’s a nuisance.

This is called maturity.

“I know the fans were probably worried,” said Ray Sheppard, who had the Wings’ first goal Sunday. “But we weren’t. And when they saw we were coming out hard, they started to do the Wave, and that got us pumped up.”

The Wave? You had time to watch the Wave?

“It was during a commercial break,” he said.

I’m telling you, this is a relaxed team. Kinder, gentler — and smarter

And peaceful. Brains over brawn. If this team were a student, it would come home with a great report card and a black eye.

It will not swing back.

Dallas, a team that lost more games than it won this season, knows its only chance is to engage the Red Wings in guerrilla warfare, individual battles here and there that may cost an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but that’s fine by the Stars, because their eyes and teeth don’t play as well as the Wings’ versions do.

“They want to get us into four-on-fours and three-on- threes,” Sheppard said. “That’s their game.”

“They do a lot of talking out there,” added coach Scotty Bowman. “They’re a gritty team, and they want to get into scrums. We have to stay away from those scrums.”

Scrums? Isn’t that rugby?

Well. Anyhow. Instead of the Wings of a few years ago, the bloody knuckles, body checks that rattled the rafters, a “you touch us we’ll kill you” mentality, this is a kinder, gentler — and far more talented — team that now has better things to do than mix it up with the non-contenders.

This, too, is called maturity. And talent.

“They were provoking me today, and I got into it once or twice, when I should know better,” Paul Coffey said. Coffey is one player the Stars would love to erase with penalty minutes.

“I fell for it in the first period, (an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with Paul Broten) and Scotty let me have it. And Keith Primeau let me have it.

“And get this. Vlade (Konstantinov) let me have, too. Did you see him? He came over to me while I was in the box and told me not to get involved in stuff like that with them.”

Just so you know, Konstantinov has a reputation in the NHL of being, well, less than angelic. And here he was, telling Coffey to play with his head, not his fists.

“I like it,” Coffey said.

This is a relaxed team. The signs are promising

And it should be a winning team. You look for little things as signs, and there were some Sunday. Such as:
* When Dallas tied the score 45 seconds into the second period, the Wings came right back, 12 seconds later, and recaptured the lead. Retaliation.
* Steve Yzerman and Sheppard are already on the board for the post-season. Each had a goal in the opener. A good start for the big guns is critical.
* Fedorov got his biggest ovation Sunday, not for scoring or passing, but for

a penalty-killing shift, when he checked Kevin Hatcher into the boards. Sergei?

“Everybody does a part this year,” Shawn Burr said. “It’s not like Sergei or Stevie weaving through crowds.”

Burr also has a name for Detroit’s new non-violence philosophy.

“Gandhi warfare,” he said.

I believe Shawn is the first NHL player to mix Mahatma Gandhi and Stanley Cup.

So be it. This team will get better as it goes along in the post-season. A little less bloody, perhaps, a little less explosive, but a lot better chances.

One down. All the rest to go. Eventually, the fans will find that you needn’t be afraid of a question like “Will the Wings blow another great year”
— as long as you have the answer.

The answer is no.

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