Chris Osgood was standing by his locker when I approached. He was sucking on a candy that smelled like a LifeSaver. Interesting choice of sweets, a LifeSaver, since that’s what half this city seems to want to throw him after Wednesday night’s loss.

But here’s a piece of news. He doesn’t need it. Doesn’t want it. And doesn’t deserve it.

“How do you feel about what happened?” I asked.

“Ticked off,” he said. “I was 85 seconds away from my best playoff series ever.”

“Does it make you want to play right now?”

“Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I can’t wait for the next game.” He smiled, rolling the sucking candy around on his tongue. “It’s gonna be big. It’s gonna be fun.”

Now, it is not my place — as someone who can’t even stop a glob of mustard from landing on his tie — to tell people what to think about Chris Osgood as a goaltender. But I’m going to do it anyhow. Here it is:

Get off his back.

Osgood is no more responsible for the Red Wings’ having to play tonight than anyone else wearing a red-and-white uniform. We have been hearing about Jamie Langenbrunner’s 90-foot goal in overtime Wednesday as if it were the first time anything like that ever happened in hockey, when any real fan can list you countless times goals like that get through — especially in overtime.

“He’s gotta stop those things,” people angrily groaned on Thursday. Yes. That’s right. He’s got to stop those — and most of the time he does. Meanwhile, Brendan Shanahan has “got to” bury the puck when he gets an open shot just a few feet away, and Sergei Fedorov has “got to” convert his speed into goals when he gets a two-on-one break, and the defense has “got to” clear the puck from its zone and the Wings have “got to” keep attacking when they have a lead.

But none of those things happened, did they? So why isn’t the whole team buried in a mountain of second-guessing the way Osgood is?

Because there’s this double standard when it comes to Osgood. It has something to do with his age (25), his experience, his shyness, his voice, his size, and the curious nature of his job. Mostly it has to do with fans who think their role is not complete if they don’t point a finger at somebody.

A cruel bandwagon

Now, if you choose to dislike Osgood or his skill, that’s your right. I can’t say anything about it. What I can say is this: Make up your mind. Nothing is worse than these people who keep jumping on and off Osgood’s bandwagon, as if he’s some kind of painted horse on a carousel.

It’s not the people who say “He’s not that good a goalie” that bother me. It’s the ones who are saying that sentence this morning, but had he lasted 85 seconds longer Wednesday night, they’d be plastering his poster over their bedroom walls.

You’re with him, or you’re against him. No fair jumping back and forth. If after all this time — an entire regular season, two victorious playoff rounds, three playoff victories over Dallas, a team with the best record in hockey, and performances that outdid Nikolai Khabibulin, Grant Fuhr and Ed Belfour — if after all that, you still flip-flop on Osgood after every defeat, then sorry. Your time is up. You need to come back next year and re-enroll in Hockey Watching 101.

Because Osgood has shown us what he is. He is a terrific goalie, who is human. His style is loose, he doesn’t flop all over the place — have you forgotten how many of us hated that about Mike Vernon? — so when Osgood is clicking he makes it look easy. That’s a shame. He should be reminding people how hard it really is.

Have we already forgotten how good he was in the first 58 minutes Wednesday night? He was easily the No. 1 star of the game. If the Wings had won, he’d have led them into the Stanley Cup finals on a magic carpet.

Didn’t happen. Or should I say it hasn’t happened yet? But remember, the crippling event Wednesday was not the game-winner but the goal that tied the score, and Osgood was no more responsible for that than Shaquille O’Neal was for the mudslides in California. He just happened to be there.

Get off his back.

A history lesson

Around the corner from where Osgood spoke, Steve Yzerman, the captain, was heading for the door. He seemed not the slightest bit concerned about his goalie.

“He’s a really tough kid,” he said. “I should say a tough guy. Because that’s the problem. People think of him as a kid and he isn’t. He looks young, and when he talks he looks down, and he doesn’t say much, and people interpret that as if he’s not tough enough.”

Hmm. Not so long ago, people said that about the soft-spoken Yzerman. Now, with a Cup behind him, they hail him as a “gutsy leader.” When I mentioned this to Yzerman, he nodded in agreement.

“If I could go back and change something in my career, I’d have spoken out earlier on,” he said. “I’d have shown who I was. I’d have said the things I wanted to say instead of keeping quiet.”

Osgood is doing that now. And what he’s saying is this: “Don’t worry about it. I’m not. Why should you?”

I, for one, am putting my chips on him. If he blows the next two games, then his critics can say they told us so. But if he sails the Wings to a victory, and ultimately the Stanley Cup, don’t come running down to the dock with your oars. The ship already will be long gone, trusting in its destiny, no lifesavers in sight.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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