Sometimes it comes down to talent, sometimes it comes down to skill, sometimes it comes down to momentum, coaching, pregame speeches, fights.
And sometimes it comes down to a bounce.
Here was Tomas Sandstrom, in overtime, simply looking to clear the puck, and on the move he flicked it high into the air.
Here were Slava Kozlov and Igor Larionov, skating down center ice, watching Sandtrom’s offering come out of the lights.
And here was the puck, hitting the ice, into Larionov’s stick, who tipped it toward Kozlov, perfect placement, right in Slava’s wheelhouse. In a single happy motion, he backhanded the puck past Andy Moog and the Red Wings had their first home win of 1997.
“Was that a gift?” Kozlov was asked, after a 4-3 squeaker over Dallas put a sigh of relief into the Red Wings’ organization.
“Gift?” said the Russian-born Kozlov. “Goal yesterday (against St. Louis) was gift, like Christmas present. This was more like . . . Valentine’s Day present.”
Hey. You take what you get. Especially around this hockey arena, especially now.
As you know, I’m the first guy to say the regular season in the NHL is meaningless. Sometimes I’m the last guy to say it. I’m also frequently the middle guy to say it, over and over, week after week, month after month, like a mantra in some California meditation center.
Winning streak? Meaningless.
Losing streak? Meaningless.
But I will admit, this game was a tad less meaningless than the others, if only for the depressing pall that hung over Joe Louis Arena since the calendar changed digits. As I arrived in the building Sunday night — after a month gone to the NFL playoffs — the place did not sound as I remembered it. In fact, it didn’t sound like an arena at all. At one point, in the first period, I actually heard Jamie Pushor yell something to a teammate — and he was on the ice, and I was in the press box in the top row.
This is what happens when your team is 0-for-the-year at home, and it’s already February.
It’s also what happens when your goalie, fresh back from a hamstring injury, lets a shot dribble through him just 22 seconds into the game. It was the first shot of the night, it had as much sting as a light beer at a baseball park, but there it was, into Chris Osgood, through Chris Osgood, behind Chris Osgood, and on the scoreboard, 1-0, Dallas.
People hadn’t even unbuttoned their coats and they were depressed.
“That wasn’t the way I wanted to come back,” said Osgood, who missed five games.
Well, you can’t always get what you want. Fans saw that Sunday night when the Wings fell behind, 2-0, and blew two prolonged five-on-three match ups with no goals. Man advantage? At times, it looked like CBS vs. PBS. But the Wings couldn’t capitalize. The were like a kid with a cap gun. All bang, no bullets.
Still, the second part of “you can’t always get what you want” — if I remember my Rolling Stones lyrics correctly — is, “if you try sometimes you get what you need.”
And the Wings got what they needed — this win, which was necessary to make the building fan-friendly again. Let’s face it. You don’t win a home game in a month, people start to think there’s something in the seats.
“We didn’t give the fans very much in January,” admitted coach Scotty Bowman.
Then again, if we’re looking at the big picture, folks — who cares? January in the NHL is like May of a presidential election year. It counts, but it doesn’t count that much.
Oh, I know there has been a smell of panic among Wings fans. They wring their hands and cry for departed faces. “Oh, Dino . . . ” “Oh, Paul . . . ”
“Oh, Keith . . . ” (OK. OK. So they never yell, “Oh, Keith . . . “)
Still, you have to expect this. Telling Red Wings fans not to panic is like
telling your kids not to watch so much TV.
But the fact is, for all their problems, the Wings this morning have the third-best record in the conference and are a mere five points away from the division lead — which they can easily make up — despite Sergei Fedorov’s being out with an injury, and Osgood’s just coming back from one.
This is panic?
“The truth is,” Osgood said, “after what happened in the playoffs the last two years, we lost a little of our aggressiveness during the regular season. I mean, we won 62 games last year and all that mattered was whether we won the (playoff opener) against Winnipeg.
“So after that, I mean, it’s not like we don’t want to win in January, but maybe we figure we can coast and still get it done. Then all of a sudden, we have a bad stretch, and eighth- place teams are playing you and are only a few points behind. And you wake up.”‘
Hey. It happens. The Wings aren’t blind. They lived what we fans only felt. The truth is — and they know this — it’s not the end of the world if they win or if they lose right now. The big question is, do they have the pieces in place for when it counts? This depends on two things, as I see it:
1) Is Osgood as good as we all made him out to be?
2) Will this defense jell in time to be a force in the playoffs?
The answers will come — not as fast as the screamers would like, but they will come. For now, you take what you can get. The curse of 1997 has been lifted, it is now safe to go back into Joe Louis Arena, not because of all the hand-wringing, but because of a puck that came out of the lights and found its way to the sweet spot. True believers will see it as a sign.