ONCE AGAIN, YZERMAN INJURED IN THE PLAYOFFS

If you live in Detroit, there are certain things you never want to hear on the first night of the hockey playoffs:

1) Your car is in the last row on the Cobo roof.

2) The guy next to you is hiding something slimy in his jacket.

3) Steve Yzerman has an injury.

Well. The good news is, your car is safe. The bad news is, Yzerman, the heart, soul and captain of the Red Wings, was on the ice for the first period Wednesday night and was gone by the second.

In the broadcast booth, the announcers said, “Count the players. Someone’s missing.”

In the press box, someone said, “Where’s Yzerman?”

In the stands, someone yelled, “Stevie?”

And it begins again. It is almost a rite of spring. The playoffs come, Yzerman gets a nick. Sometimes the nicks are meaningless. Sometimes they are darn near crippling. You can’t tell from Yzerman. He is a soldier’s soldier. His arm could be dangling by a single ligament and he’d say, “It’s a paper cut.”

And don’t expect the Red Wings to tell you. Under Scotty Bowman, there is only one difference between an injury update and a nuclear disarmament treaty.

The injury update is more important.

The official word from the Red Wings during the game was that Yzerman had “a sore leg,” which led one broadcaster to remark, “If they say it’s a sore leg, it could be a bad shoulder.”

If they say bad shoulder, it could be a concussion.

If they say concussion, it could be the gall bladder.

And sure enough, once we got to the locker room, the sore leg became an ankle injury, of sorts.

“Which ankle?” we asked.

“We don’t know,” the Red Wings said.

Come on, fellas. Pick a side.

Here’s what happens next

Now, if Yzerman is reading this, he is already cringing, perhaps even feeding the newspaper to the family dog. Because one thing he hates more than people making a fuss over him is people making a fuss over his injuries. And in the big picture, Yzerman, 36 next month, is an incredibly durable player, considering the load he shoulders year after year.

But he does endure. He has played through injury upon injury. And ever since the Jacques Demers era, when a much younger Yzerman crashed into a goal post knee-first, there have been recurring scenes of him being helped off the ice, or limping into the tunnel and smashing a stick.

His knee bothered him last post-season. There was a groin injury in 1998. So often, it is something. Little nags. Major snags. Either way, he hates being hurt. He hates being questioned.

It’s going to happen anyhow.

“He just couldn’t go,” Bowman said. “He tried, but it just got worse. He won’t practice the next few days.”

“Could he play Saturday in Game 2?” someone asked.

Bowman shrugged. “We thought he could play today.”

Here is what the press and the public can look forward to now: speculation, disinformation and tight scrutiny every minute Yzerman plays. If he doesn’t play, there will be theories as to why, when, how long, how serious.

And if he does play — but doesn’t shine — there will be questions as to why, when, how long, how serious.

But, already, I’ve heard talk that Yzerman — in addition to the ankle — has a broken finger. This is the price you pay when you are the aorta. Everyone has a vested interest in your pump-ability.

All hope is not lost

None of this is to say the Wings can’t win this opening series against Los Angeles even without Yzerman. They hung on gamely to a 5-3 lead in Game 1, and got great production from Brendan Shanahan and Tomas Holmstrom and good goaltending from Chris Osgood.

But the defense lagged at times, so did the intensity, and those are two things that, not coincidentally, Yzerman helps provide.

“He’s been hurt quite a few years in the playoffs,” Osgood said. “It’s unfortunate. But you know Stevie, he’ll be back soon.”

On Wednesday, he left before the game was over. No words. Why bother? He knows the drill. He hates it.

It would be easier if the Wings didn’t need Yzerman so much. But he is integral in every sense of the word. It is no accident that with the Captain missing 25 games in the first part of this season — with a knee injury that required surgery — the Wings meandered with mediocrity.

And it is no accident that Wednesday night, with him on the ice, the Wings racked up a 3-0 lead. And come the second period, with him gone, they surrendered three goals while scoring two.

“Yeah, we were shook up a little with him gone,” Bowman actually admitted, which is like the Chinese admitting their pilot was a tad reckless.

Know this: Yzerman, acutely aware of his dwindling time, will not miss a game he doesn’t have to miss. But a slowed Yzerman is not the same as a healthy one. And his health will be a mystery from this point on.

It’s early. No jumping to conclusions. But like it or not, there is, for the moment, a shadow over the Red Wings’ playoff hopes.

And you know what else? The guy next to you still hasn’t opened his jacket.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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