Others Provide Game 5 Drama – But Mule Rules

Long before the empty-net goal by Henrik Zetterberg, long before Darren Helm saw his espresso energy pay off with a red light, long before Pavel Datsyuk amazed everyone with a puck flip over the net as if he were tossing a pizza, long before Jiri Hudler bunted the puck over the goalie’s shoulder into the net – yes, bunted, in mid-air, I’m not getting my sports mixed up – long before all that drama and exhaustion and waiting and nail-biting and cheering and music and fireball explosions, long before all that there was Johan Franzen.

Who, if you ask me, was the star of the night.

Oh, sure, Datsyuk was amazing, Hudler was an eye-blinker, Helm sealed the deal, and Chris Osgood played the lights out way he had to on the limited shots he faced. But the Wings don’t win without Franzen. There is something about this mule of a man, something about his calm, his strength, his decision-making, his aim, something about his playoff excellence that even has Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle giving him compliments, and Carlyle seems to grouch about everything.

“Pretty good shots,” he said of Franzen.

Uh, yeah. Pretty good.

Franzen put Detroit up, 1-0, just over three minutes into the second period, at which point the Wings were in danger of shaking their heads off their necks in frustration. They had fired 15 shots on goal with no payoff, had hit the post, had incredible chances, had played with such overwhelming energy you felt as if the game should be 3-0 at least.

It wasn’t. In fact, with the series tied, and with the ghosts of bad Game 5’s swirling all around Joe Louis Arena, you could feel the energy shift from confidence to concern. Uh-oh. One of those nights……

Some amazing statistics

It was not one of those nights, because Franzen delivered, the way he has delivered to a ridiculous degree this postseason – and the way he did last postseason. The Mule has scored 20 times in 25 playoff games. That’s crazy. He tied the Detroit record for playoff goals last year with 13 and, with seven already, he might break it this year.

In the regular season, consistency is good.

In the playoffs, it’s pure gold.

“I think maybe I’m more suited for playoff-type hockey,” Franzen said, shrugging, after Sunday’s 4-1 victory. “A little more physical. I can use my big body to get in front of the net.”

The body is great. I think it’s the mind. Franzen, who is prone to make jokes so dry you can leave fingerprints in their dust, doesn’t seem fazed by any of this. He is another in a long line of Swedes whose blood pressure is three over zero.

Franzen, with his big frame and red beard, reminds me of a lumberjack, one of those survival guys who smirks at what mere mortals call “danger.” You get the feeling that if wolves were howling in the bushes, tigers snarling behind rocks, and vultures cawing in the trees, Franzen would look up, while whittling a stick, and say, “Yah. Noisy buggers, eh?”

Plenty of nights of magic

I asked Nicklas Lidstrom, a fellow Swede, what it was about Franzen that allowed him to deliver so regularly.

“I think it’s his stubbornness,” Lidstrom said, grinning.

Well, in that case, let him bray. Let him kick. And get out of his way. Because in a playoff series where your No. 1 and No. 3 goal-scorers, Marian Hossa and Datsyuk, have two and zero goals respectively, you need someone to stubbornly put the puck in the net. You need someone to rely on when the axis is tilting toward disaster. Franzen is the calm in the storm. There’s a reason the Wings signed him up for 11 years – and he’s already 29. You don’t find this kind of stubborn magic very often.

When a reporter gave the numbers of his amazing point production this postseason, Franzen cocked his head said, “Really?”

Yeah. Really. The Wings have a chance to close this thing out Tuesday night. And long before that became the headline, the big redhead was the lead sentence.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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