EDMONTON — Melt the ice. This remarkable season is finally over. The Red Wings went down the way they had come up, fighting, scratching, clawing, overachieving, playing better than anyone had dreamed, playing within inches of greatness, within a breath of a miracle. But still a breath away.
For the record, it ended on a Wednesday night in May in a cavernous arena in Edmonton, with fans who, at their loudest, could barely be heard over the traffic around Joe Louis Arena. But fans don’t win hockey games, neither do dreams. If they did, the Red Wings would still be alive this morning.
Edmonton 6, Detroit 3. The deciding goal — the Oilers’ fourth — would be painfully fitting. Here was the great Mark Messier in front of the net — Messier, who along with Wayne Gretzky symbolizes the awesome power of this Edmonton club — and he shot past a stretching Shawn Burr, just getting a shot off as he went down. Messier versus Burr. Experience versus hungry youth. Edmonton versus Detroit.
The puck scooted past Greg Stefan.
The Red Wings’ final chapter was written.
Could there be a sadder sight than that accidental bank shot late in the last period by the Oilers’ Kent Nilsson, a shot that slid like a cue ball right into a Detroit open net, and made a one-goal game an impossibility? Gilbert Delorme chased after it, just missed stopping it, and as the Edmonton crowd went delirious, Delorme slumped over the net, his head in his hands.
In truth, this was a game that just seemed fated to end in Detroit defeat almost from the start. The Oilers’ first goal came when Greg Stefan lost his stick in a collision and stood there, almost helpless, as a Paul Coffey shot flew past him. Was that bad enough? Try this. The Oilers’ second goal went in off Stefan’s skate as he slid — needlessly, it turns out — on a weak shot by Kevin McClelland.
Meanwhile, the Wings had enough opportunities in the first period to almost put this thing away. “I thought we should have been up 4-1 after that period, ” coach Jacques Demers would say.
But you can roll the replays from this series over and over in your mind, it still does not change the final tally. It read 4-1 Edmonton. It was a lot closer than that.
“I think people who picked this thing to be a breeze,” Oilers coach Glen Sather said, “found out it was a lot harder than it seemed. Detroit has a great situation. they’ll be very tough next year.”
Next year. Yes. That is what Wings fans must think about now. When you are honest with yourself, you know the Wings do not deserve to be the winners of this series: Grant Fuhr was too tough in the net, the Oilers were too relentless. Yet the word “losers” is somehow inappropriate. How can you call what Detroit did losing? Only an accountant could do that. Only someone with no feel for heart, for soul, for effort.
The critics had come to bury the Wings, not praise them, but this morning, even in the pale light of defeat, you can find little fault with the way they played. They never stopped fighting the good fight. Even as the final seconds ticked off Wednesday night they were still charging, still hoping for some kind of miracle. “I told them I was really proud of them,” Demers said afterwards. “And I think they should be proud of themselves.”
So a moment now, for perspective, which is too often as thin as a skate blade. Think back to last year at this time, when Detroit was an absent name from the NHL playoff roster. Not the same hockey. Not worse hockey. No hockey at all.
“You know,” Demers had said earlier, “some of the Oilers have been talking about winning this one and ‘putting us out of our misery.’ What misery? Where has there been misery? We’ve had nothing but fun in this.”
Isn’t he speaking for all of us?
So melt the ice, use it to water the seeds for next season. But as you do, remember what the Wings proved before the puck was ever dropped last night: That pressure doesn’t kill them; that history doesn’t trip them; that foreign buildings and foreign fans will not throw them, and that victory — if not now, sometime — is certainly within them.
So they lost a hockey game, they lost a series. Think less about that this morning than the difference between this year and last year, less about those near-misses in Games 3 and 4 than about the happy pile of bodies when the Wings swept Chicago, less about this Game 5 than about the Game 7 against Toronto, when Detroit found that miracles on ice is more than just a cute phrase.
A season ends in one game. But it is made up of many. So if all that can be said of these Red Wings is that they took their fans back to the street of dreams, to within a few wins of a Stanley Cup Final, well, be damn happy about
that. No tears here. All things considered, this was a hell of a ride.