In the final seconds they seemed to be skating lighter, more freely, as if they’d shaken some invisible weights from their sweaters. The Red Wings were smiling gap-toothed smiles — they were going to the NHL semifinals, hallelujah! — and their celebration would come like a gush of air from a set of bursting lungs.

“Got it? . . . ” the fans seemed to say, as they counted off the final seconds. “Got it? . . . Got it?”

“GOT IT!” came the answer as the Wings leaped into a delirious pile around the net, Norris Division playoff champions for the second year in a row. “WE GOT IT! LET’S GO!”

Win again, begin again. We now take you back to where we left these upstart young hockey players one season ago, back to the delicious moment where the odds are against them and only their guts, sweat and will to succeed can bring them glory. Forget Toronto, and even St. Louis now. This year, the Wings were supposed to beat them. But here we are again. The semifinals. Against Edmonton? The hottest team in the sport? Nervous? Scared?

“WE WANT EDMONTON! WE WANT EDMONTON” roared the crowd, as coach Jacques Demers did a little happy dance off the ice.

They ain’t scared.

All I have to say is St. Louis gave us all that we could handle,” said a smiling, hoarse-throated Demers after his Wings had beaten the Blues, 4-3, to wrap up this series, four games to one. “There was a lot of pressure on us. We were the team with 93 points playing the team with 76 points. But we were not going to choke.”

They did not. Here Wednesday night was a case of living up to expectations, the toughest kind — your own. The Wings did not want to return to St. Louis for Game 6 any more than an inmate wants to return for another five-to-ten. This series had become an albatross around their necks, just like the Toronto series that preceded it. “Hey, we’re expected to win,” said Brent Ashton before the game even started. And when that happens, losing games becomes twice as bad, and winning only half as much fun.

So it had to end, if Red Wing desire had anything to do with it. You could sense it in the third period, when the Detroit players skated as if the last lights of their lives were inside the nets. A St. Louis goal had given the Blues a 3-2 edge, “but as soon as it went in,” said Detroit goalie Greg Stefan, “I said to myself, ‘That’s it. Nothing else gets in. We are not going back to that city.’ “

And sure enough, less than two minutes later, John Chabot tied it with a wicked slap shot, 16:19 left to play, and, whoa, baby. You could almost feel the Wings take a collective breath, tighten up, and go for the kill. Their skating became sharper, their passes crisp and true, their checking something out of a sound-effects record, all thuds and crunches and whomp-whomp- whomp. And when Tim Higgins skated across the middle near the St. Louis net, and the lone defender, Paul Cavalinni, went down, and then the goalie, Greg Millen, went down, and Higgins waited, waited, until his shot was clear and he fired away — SCORE! — the crowd went crazy, and it was sorry, St. Louis.

“As a kid, you work and dream about getting a chance to score a goal like that!” said Higgins, a defensive specialist who was soaked with champagne in the locker room afterwards. “Tonight, I don’t know, it just came true . . . It’s the highlight of my career. And we get to go on.”

Win again, begin again.

A moment for appreciation. What the Wings did Wednesday night was shake off the yoke of expectations, freeing themselves like a diver freed of an underwater rock. Now, they are swimming once again in the glorious waters of the unknown: what they are about to try, no Red Wing team has accomplished in 22 years.

Win the semifinals, advance to the Stanley Cup final.

They believe they can do it.

“Last time Edmonton was laughing at us,” said Demers. “I don’t even think they scouted us. But this time, I feel they have respect. And the thing we have going for us is that we’ve been there before. We’re not afraid of anything now. Things are different.”

Different, indeed. It is true, these Wings have not yet beaten anyone in the playoffs that they weren’t supposed to beat. It is also true they did not falter along the way — as Calgary, Montreal and the Islanders have already done. They took six games with pesky Toronto and only five with St. Louis, and did it all without All-Star captain Steve Yzerman, and with enough wacko injuries to make up an “I Love Lucy” episode. Don’t fault the Wings for having to play Norris Division foes. That’s the division they’re in. What do you want?

“People expected us to get this far, and we have,” said Adam Oates. So for now, for this morning, remember the scenes from Wednesday’s victory party: Higgins (a veteran they call “Hands” for his ungracious stick handling) slapping that patient goal into the net; Stefan stopping the final shot as the blue lights twirled, then raising his stick in glorious celebration; and Demers, dancing back into the locker room behind his team, as the din of a loving city roared in his ears. Soon enough we will see how real these 1988 Wings are, and how tough Edmonton is really playing. That’s the way it works.

Win again, begin again.

Can you even wait for Tuesday? CUTLINE: Red Wings players celebrate their 4-3 victory over St. Louis Wednesday.

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