ANAHEIM, Calif. – The Ducks were down a man and still scored. They had a power play coming and scored without needing it. Dominik Hasek came out unusually high; the puck dribbled through him. Hasek sprawled flat; three pucks went behind him.
Like dripping ice, like descending smog, there was karma all over the building Tuesday night – and still the Red Wings almost shook it off, they fought to the choking finish. But in the end, it was covered in feathers and it spoke with a beak. And by the time the sun set here in the West, it had already gone down on Detroit.
Duck, duck, gone.
Say good-bye to the 2007 dream. It ended with a fury, like two mad heavyweights plundering each other. The Wings came back from 3-0 and 4-1, closed it to 4-3, and with three minutes to go, they unleashed a relentless passion that makes fans swear hockey is the greatest sport of them all. Swarming. Charging. Pavel Datsyuk had a swipe at the goalie and another swipe. Denied! Dan Cleary had a swipe and another swipe. Denied! The goalie was pulled. The puck kept coming, this close. That close. At a whistle, Todd Bertuzzi and Chris Pronger were clenching each other as if the referee were going to come over and tell them to break it up and kept slugging. The Wings skated as if the last lights of their lives were in those final minutes, and it truth, for this season, they were. But when the horn sounded, the puck was too far away, the Wings were heaving, and the season was over.
Never mind all that talk about Detroit playing better than Anaheim in this series. Never mind Game 4 (shoulda won) or Game 5 (shoulda won). There is only what you win and what you lose. And for all the talk about great Detroit effort without a victory, there remained a wait for a great Anaheim effort with a victory. That came Tuesday, in Game 6. Detroit won the final minutes. But Anaheim won all the minutes before it.
Duck, duck, gone.
And so, for Detroit, these playoffs end in the Western Conference finals. And now comes the worst kind of summer, because for hockey players the worst kind of summer is one spent in the shadows of what could have been, might have been, if only a play here, a moment there. That is the summer the Wings face now, two victories and one series short of paradise.
The beards come off. The gear gets packed. And the brains start churning. What if Mathieu Schneider hadn’t gone down for the playoffs? What if Niklas Kronwall had been available? What if they had taken advantage of Pronger being suspended and two 5-on-3 chances in Game 4? What if they had cleared the puck with less than two minutes left in Game 5?
What if they had turned it on in the first two periods Tuesday they way they did in the third?
Here’s the truth about what ifs: like ice, they melt.
Duck, duck, gone. A Game 5 hangover
You knew this night was trouble early on, before the traffic-plagued Southern Californians fans could fully fill the building. Anaheim came out hopping, got the first four shots on goal, drew the first penalty, and scored the first goal less than four minutes in, a typical playoff job, a hard shot by Pronger that skirted off the skate of Rob Niedermayer and danced behind an out-of-position Hasek.
It was 1-0, and that was probably the worst thing that could have happened to the Wings. Had they scored first, it might have done wonders for scrubbing away the residue from Game 5’s haunting end. And if you ask me, this series was actually lost at that moment, Sunday afternoon, back in Detroit, when a penalty left the Wings two skaters down with less than two minutes left. A victory turned to a tie. A tie turned to a defeat.
And if you don’t think these Wings were skating with that in their heads Tuesday night, you haven’t been around sports. Sure, they will all say they forgot about it. That’s what they are supposed to say. But look at how they played – beginning with the overtime in Game 5 and all through the first two periods of Game 6. A step behind. A bit less aggressive. It wasn’t that the Wings played badly. It was that Anaheim played better. The balance of power changed.
Duck, duck, gone.
This was a night when the glue melted, when Hasek was human and reverted to flopping too often for comfort. But in his defense, where was the defense? Take a look at the replays of the Anaheim goals. Most began out front, straight on, where your rebounds and your ricochets are most likely to disrupt a goalie. The Wings, by contrast, tried too much of their offense from the sides in this series, where a goalie can see and stop more easily.
It’s simple: In the playoffs, it’s about traffic in front of their goalie and defense in front of yours. Tomas Holmstrom is brilliant at this. But the Wings need more of that from other players.
And, come on, admit it: Jean-Sebastien Giguere was amazing.
But give credit to the Wings for this: They never quit. They came so hard in that third period – harder than the first two combined. Mike Babcock has reason to be proud of this team’s effort. They could have folded it up and been thinking about the airplane. Instead, they were charging to the final horn. But it was too big a hill to climb. Euro Twins must score
And so the first season of the No-Yzerman-No-Shanahan era comes to an end in Detroit, with many good things and some memorable highlights: nice development by the team’s young guns and a return of perhaps the cagiest goalie to ever wear a Red Wings uniform. And before any critical analysis, we must acknowledge this Detroit team went farther than any since the Cup-winning squad of 2002.
But while the amazing Nicklas Lidstrom proved that being shy and humble is no reason you can’t inspire, fans are still left hungry for more in the playoffs from Henrik Zetterberg, who scored a goal in the first game of this series, and Pavel Datsyuk who scored one in the second. Neither scored again until Game 6 was out of reach Tuesday night – then they got productive.
Too little, too late. If you are going to advance, your big guns have to fire. Your big guns must draw blood. The skill of these two players is apparent. But the productivity has to match the wow factor, or all you have left is highlight footage – none of it involving a Stanley Cup.
But that can still come. They are still young. And let’s recognize that playoff hockey is such a dicey proposition, a bounce here or there, a hot goalie to shut you down (and the Wings certainly faced that with Giguere).
Babcock has improved this team. Its regular season wasn’t as good, but the Wings made it two rounds deeper in the post-season, and that is how you measure things The conference finals is a plenty respectable finish for a team in transition like the Wings. And remember. Anaheim is hardly a slouch. The Ducks, too, began the year with sights set on the Cup.
Their vision is still alive. Detroit’s is over. In the end, the Wings will be haunted by a puck hitting a stick, by a giveaway in overtime, by blown power plays, and by a game in which Hasek was human and three games in which Giguere was something else.
Duck, duck, gone. The Wings should be proud. They can keep their heads up. But next year, they should tilt them a little higher, up were the Ducks are flying now.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.