OPENING STATEMENTRED-HOT RED WINGS, LED BY KOCUR, SCORE A KNOCKOUT AGAINST COYOTES

Idon’t want to give the folks in Phoenix early indigestion, but when Joey Kocur scores two goals on your team, you’d better check your diet.

Yes, I know it’s only the first game of the playoffs. Yes, I know some teams need time to get loose. But two goals — by Joey Kocur? That’s like two touchdowns by Jerry Ball. Two home runs by Justin Thompson. Demoralizing? That wasn’t sweat on the Phoenix players, it was skid marks. The Zamboni had a better night than they did.

Here was a playoff opener in which Detroit, not Phoenix, was decimated by injuries; in which Detroit, not Phoenix, was without its leading scorer and without two of its best forwards. Yet the Red Wings still lit up Phoenix like stars in a desert sky. And Kocur, who hadn’t scored a goal in four months, put the puck in the net twice.

Two goals? Joey Kocur?

Yep. And once, he even used his stick.

“The first one, I really didn’t know it went in until I heard the fans,” Kocur admitted after the Wings’ victory in Game 1 of this first-round series. “To be honest, I didn’t even know if it was going to be allowed.”

That goal was one you almost feel guilty about. It was still early, first period, and Kocur, who is better known for his punches than his pucks, came flying into the crease and was simply trying to hit the brakes before he slammed into the goalie. He stopped in a spray of ice. As he did, the puck hit his skate and went in.

Fortunate? Well, it wasn’t something you draw up on a board. If hockey were
“Alice In Wonderland,” Kocur’s goal would be falling down the rabbit hole.

His other score was more legit, a second-period blast past Nikolai Khabibulin. Kocur actually used his stick for this one. And afterward, not-so-jolly Nik had seen enough. The Phoenix goalie headed for the showers, having allowed five goals in 36 minutes. His replacement, Jimmy Waite, skated in and left the net alone just long enough for Kirk Maltby to dump in another puck uncontested.

Uh, Jimmy? You stand over here.

“This game went the way you draw up an opener,” Darren McCarty said after the Wings thumped the Coyotes, 6-3, and took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. “Of course, usually, it doesn’t work the way you draw it up.”

It did Wednesday. What a nice kickoff to a long postseason. And maybe Kocur offered a good harbinger of things to come. His last playoff goal came in the first game of last year’s finals against Philadelphia — and look how those worked out.

“How’s it feel to be the Wings’ leading scorer in the playoffs so far?” he was asked.

Kocur laughed. “I’m going to savor this day.”

There has always been something very Detroit about Kocur. He’s an original bruiser, who goes back to the rough-and-tumble years with the Wings, when Nick Polano, Harry Neale and Brad Park took turns coaching and the Detroit postseason was an annual exercise in futility.

Last year, Kocur, 33, with permanently scarred knuckles from his years of fighting, thought his career was over. Having bounced to several other teams, and having won a Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers, he was out of hockey, playing in rec leagues. The Wings gave him a second life. And he responded by tapping into — and occasionally socking into — the roots of this team, a quiet symbol of power.

It was a perfect fit. And when he won his second Stanley Cup ring last June, he admitted that in some ways, it meant more than his first, and he sat by his locker, champagne soaked cigar in mouth, happy as a Cheshire cat.

And there he was again Wednesday, the leading scorer.

“Do you know the last time you scored a goal?” he was asked.

“Last year,” he said, “Dec. 31.”

“Were you worried before tonight you might go 0-for-1998?”

“Nah,” he said, “I still had the first few months of next season.”

Ah well, it was a fun night. But in blowouts like these, you cannot draw enormous conclusions. You can say this: Hockey season officially began Wednesday, in the middle of spring, on a night warm enough to wear shirtsleeves. There were 82 games played before this one. They counted; they did not matter. They were boot camp. This was combat.

It was also the return of the familiar extravaganza that is hockey postseason in Joe Louis Arena. There was the guy in the stands who dances to “Hey, Moe,” and who wore a customized Wings jersey, there was the swirling lights and the blasting music, there was the obligatory new theme song (“Raise Your Hands,” replacing “Hockeytown”) and there was the national anthem, which is turning into too much of a sideshow if you ask me. On Wednesday, they actually lowered blonde-haired, red-sequined Karen Newman down from the rafters on a wire, like a visitor from “3rd Rock from the Sun.”

I don’t know. Call me boring. But it’s the national anthem, not “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones. There was something in years past that was very right
— very Detroit — about the singer simply walking out there and belting the song. Wearing red glitter and flying in like Peter Pan is the kind of overstatement the Wings avoided last year, which made their winning so good.

Anyhow, I’m sure the Coyotes are not thinking much about the national anthem this morning, or much of anything besides, “If that’s the Red Wings when they’re hurt . . .”

Hmm. Maybe the Wings should keep the injured Brendan Shanahan and Kris Draper out a little longer, as long as they have a scoring machine like Kocur.

Then again, maybe tomorrow the Wings unleash another secret offensive weapon: Kevin Hodson.

Stay tuned.

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

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