MITCH ALBOMLife, as you get older, is less about what you learn than what you remember. Same goes for hockey. Especially playoff hockey. This is not training camp or some summer skate, where you work on your new moves. Playoffs are when you rely on instinct. Success depends on what kicks in.

What kicks in? For Brendan Shanahan, it is a knack for scoring, a nose for the net. He has been that way his whole career, and here he was again, early Thursday night, zooming to the goal, taking a pass across the crease and dropping to one knee as he fired high over the goalie’s shoulder. 1-0. The playoffs begin.

What kicks in? For Curtis Joseph, who at 35 has lost track of all his playoff appearances, it is a knack for being in the right place when the puck comes flying. And here he was again Thursday night, in the second period, on a two-man disadvantage, holding the fort, and in the final minute of regulation, on a skate save, and in the first overtime, in a one-on-one showdown, deflecting it high, and in the second overtime, taking two off the chest, until the crowd yelled, “Cu-jo! Cu-jo!”

What kicks in? For Luc Robitaille, 37, the score is the thing. Always has been. Always will be. He was brought to Detroit to score goals, and he did all right last year, and he dried up this year, and at one point, with little alternative, his coach, Dave Lewis, actually benched him because his production wasn’t what it should be. That embarrassed Robitaille, the way falling down would embarrass a great dancer. But Thursday night, in overtime, he fired hard and the puck hit the crossbar and then hit the post and the red light came on and the crowd erupted and for a moment, one blessed moment, what kicked in was what Luc Robitaille did best: score a big one. Win the game.

But only for a moment.

The goal was reviewed. The goal was denied. And the play resumed but the spirit of the evening did not. The Red Wings had kick, but not karma. And, as often happens when a game bends but doesn’t break, it ultimately snapped back the other way. The fortunes changed. And even 20 shots in one overtime and 14 in the next couldn’t keep the wall from coming down.

Finally, in the third overtime, Anaheim’s Niclas Havelid ricocheted a shot off Joseph and it went through Sergei Fedorov’s legs, and Paul Kariya did what he does for his team, flipped it past the goalie and raised his fists.

The Red Wings, the best offense in the NHL, went nearly 100 minutes without a goal, and lost the playoff opener, 2-1, to the Mighty Ducks. And what kicks in now is a familiar reminder: Reputation means nothing. History means nothing. Regular season means nothing. These are the playoffs. The world is a different place.

The shots kept coming

What was amazing about this game, all four hours and 20 minutes of it, was not the fact that it began Thursday in dying sunlight and ended close to Friday, in midnight darkness. Nor was it the fact that the Wings played two games in one evening. (I know the Ilitch family owns the baseball and hockey teams in town. I didn’t know they both played doubleheaders.)

No, what was amazing about this game, besides the final score, was the even struggle the Mighty Ducks put up all game against the Mighty Wings. Remember, this Anaheim team is as newly assembled as the Dell computer that arrives this morning. Since last spring, Anaheim acquired an old Red Wing, Fredrik Olausson, and even older Red Wing, Adam Oates; a former Devil, Petr Sykora; a former Blackhawk, Steve Thomas; and the forward with the “Animal House” last name, Rob Niedermayer. Twelve new faces are on the roster since last year.

Let’s face it: The amazing thing about the Ducks is that they’re all in a row.

They also feature a young goalie, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, whose name suggests, and I mean no offense here, a shampoo. On Thursday, however, it was Jean-Sebastien, making his playoff debut, whom the Wings could not wash out of their hair.

Not that they didn’t try. They peppered 28 regulation shots against him, and in the first overtime, launched 20 more. They added 14 more in the second overtime, until pretty soon, it resembled Apollo Creed and Rocky, with the champion landing punch after punch, only to see the palooka still there — bloodied, swollen, but there. Finally the champ, in exhaustion and frustration, screams out, “What’s it gonna take to knock you down?”

And Rocky knocks him over.

It happened — thanks to Kariya. And let’s face it. The only thing worse than putting up 64 shots and scoring only twice is putting up 64 shots and scoring only once. The overtimes were exercises in frustration. Everybody took the bow and arrow. And everybody missed. Shanahan fired. Kris Draper fired. Igor Larionov, the oldest player in the NHL, almost had the winner on a ricochet that just caught Giguere’s skate. Mathieu Dandenault streaked one into Giguere’s body. Kirk Maltby did the same. Nicklas Lidstrom fired one from out on top that brought Giguere to his knees, but still did not go in. Steve Yzerman, surgery and all, had several cracks at a legend-fitting game-winner.

The shots on goal racked up like pinball numbers. Forty-one, Forty-two. Fifty-one, Fifty-two. Sixty-one. Sixty-two.

Still, the kid didn’t break.

“I don’t think he could have a better game, let’s say that,” Lewis said. “He won his debut in this building. That’s something.”

Game 2 will be a key

Now, it’s true. The Ducks are that worst type of team to face in the first round, a team that is only getting better, a team that had a slow first half but a blazing second half, a team with a first-year coach and a first-time playoff goaltender and no bad postseason memories from last year because it had no postseason last year. In other words, a team that doesn’t know it’s supposed to lose.

It’s also true that this is nothing new. It has happened before to the Red Wings. Numerous times. Young team. Low seed. Nothing to lose. Takes a quick lead in a series. I know we’re all tired this morning, but we haven’t so quickly forgotten the two losses to Vancouver that opened the 2002 playoffs. You know? The one that ended in a Stanley Cup?

This is Hockeytown and these are the playoffs, and the playoffs are about perseverance. They’re about riding the wave. But mostly, for veteran teams — for defending champions — they are about what kicks in.

And now we’ll see what does.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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