LEGACY ON THE LINE IN DESERT AFTER AWFUL LOSS

Sunday, crummy Sunday. The Red Wings could not defend their net, their home ice or their series lead in Game 6.

Now we see if they can defend their legacy.

The Wings are one of the great franchises in sports, a perennial playoff team and an occupant of the past two Stanley Cup finals. But teams like that – talented, savvy, experienced teams – don’t let young teams off the mat. They don’t let upstarts embarrass them in their own building – especially when a victory would have sent those kids home.

Instead, the Wings began Sunday afternoon with a gift from the gods. Before the game was 5 minutes old, they had been handed three straight penalties by the Coyotes and had a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:09.

Yet when the smoke cleared, Phoenix had a goal and Detroit had none. Brad Stuart lost the puck trying to go into two players to set up the power play, and Lauri Korpikoski took it all the way to Jimmy Howard’s five hole. For a moment, Wings fans may have flashed back to last year’s Game 7 of the finals, in this same building, when a Stuart turnover led to the first goal for Pittsburgh, which took the Cup a few hours later.

But Pittsburgh is one thing, Phoenix is another. Let’s be blunt. Dance time is over. If the Red Wings want to prove that they are still, when it counts, the Red Wings, if they want to prove that being a five seed was just a number, not an evaluation, they will have to pluck some new strings out in the desert Tuesday night.

Because they are suddenly out of tune.

And soon to be out of time. Special-teams collapse spells Game 6 defeat

“No question about it,” coach Mike Babcock said after the 5-2 loss. “You have anybody down, you want to get rid of them.”

But the Wings never even led in this one. It’s hard to say which was more stinging: The fact their penalty killing, flawless the past four games, gave up three of the five goals, or much of the damage was done by former Detroit players. Mathieu Schneider got them with a hard shot from out top for a 2-0 lead. And Robert Lang made a great cross-ice pass to Radim Vrbata for a 3-1 advantage. Meanwhile, Wings stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were silenced when they needed to be loud. Johan Franzen and Dan Cleary, huge players last postseason, remained muted. And while Phoenix, according to several Wings, got the lucky bounces, Howard, the rookie goaltender, was nowhere near as solid as a goalie needs to be to win a Cup.

Now he goes to Phoenix for a Game 7. A victory will give him early stripes on his shoulder. Then again, it’s the first Game 7 of his NHL life. Do you really want your year hanging on that?

“It’s gonna be exciting,” Howard, 26, said, seeming nonplussed. “This is what you dream about as a kid when you’re playing street hockey. So it’s gonna be fun.”

Of course, in your dreams, you always win.

Trust us, Jimmy. It’s no fun if you don’t. Wings didn’t act like Wings in third period

But let’s be honest. Fans have been acting as if Detroit is a clear favorite and is supposed to win the series all along. The Wings’ locker room – and Babcock especially – seemed unfazed by playing one game to keep the season alive. Oh, well. If we have to …

But remember, top teams like Pittsburgh and San Jose, while nicked, still won their first rounds in six games. The Wings blew a chance to ignite their playoff swagger Sunday. It was disconcerting to look up to see them losing, 5-1, in the third period, reduced to fighting as the seats began to empty. That’s for other teams, teams that don’t consider the playoffs a birthright.

The Wings are on the verge of proving that their regular-season record – often blamed on injuries – was more real than they admit.

“We ended up a five seed because that’s how we produced, how we played,” Zetterberg said. “If we would have been better, we would have been higher.”

They must be careful that that’s not their epitaph. There is no shame in taking lumps in any NHL playoff round. But great teams have to give more than they get.

Sunday, crummy Sunday. Bad bounces or not, the Wings just made the 2010 postseason considerably harder than it needed to be.

Or maybe shorter.

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