TORONTO — So what if his front teeth were missing? He was smiling as wide as an open net and he was answering the same question a hundred times —
“Describe the goal!” “What happened on the goal?” — and suddenly a teammate’s voice broke through the steamy locker room and stopped the interviews in mid- sentence.

“PROBY! PROBY!” yelled Joe Kocur.

“YEAH?”

“YOUR FIRST PLAYOFF GOAL?”

“YEAH.”

“HERE. CATCH.”

And through the air came the puck, the winning puck, a high toss that landed right in the grasp of Bob Probert, suddenly, unexpectedly, the same way his shot had gone into the net to give the Wings a 3-2 lead in Game 6 of this playoff series, and assure them of a trip home with their hockey season still alive.

“Hey man, where’d you get it?” Probert asked.

“I just got it,” Kocur said. “And you should have it. That’s pretty big, you know.”

He knew.

Winning goal, Bob Probert.

Does that have an unexpected ring to it? Is that the way you expected this rope-around-your-neck contest to be determined? Is that the way the Wings would come back from a 3-1 series deficit? Winning goal, Bob Probert? He had never scored a playoff goal in his life.

“Does this feel a little funny?” someone asked him, after the Wings had cut down Toronto by a final score of 4-2.

“Well,” he said, “It’s true, my style is more bump and grind. I’m not a 50-goal player. But, you know, I get a few.”

He got the one that mattered. The Wings are coming home for at least one more face-off, Game 7.

Winning goal, Bob Probert. Turning a life around How fitting was this? How perfect for this turn-it-around hockey season by perhaps the league’s most unlikely turnaround candidates?

“I couldn’t have wanted anyone to score that final goal more than Proby,” said Wings coach Jacques Demers, who is one game from the NHL’s semifinal round. “In the last two months he’s turned his life around so much. For him to do that tonight, it’s more than a goal. It’s . . . fitting.”

Fitting, yes. For Probert, as every hockey fan in Detroit knows, has had his share of setbacks this season. Three run-ins with Canadian police. Drinking problems. Rehab centers. Demers says he has turned it around, and Kocur — who lived with him before those incidents — says he has turned it around, and Probert himself says he has turned it around. And who knows? He was there Friday night, at left wing, doing what he’s supposed to do, play hockey, and in a game where all the expected scorers did not seem up to the task, Probert suddenly found the task on the end of his stick — a perfect centering pass by Gerard Gallant midway through the deadlocked third period — and slap, whack, it was in, and the Wings were up to stay.

From that point, the Wings were not to be denied. This game had been a slugfest, quicksand. At times it looked as if all the players were skating with weights around their ankles. The Wings scored first and the Leafs tied it up, the Leafs went ahead and the Wings tied it up. Back, forth, up, down, no team seemed to grab the thing and stuff it in their pockets.

But when Probert’s goal went in, the possible became as real as crystal, and the Wings revved it up, skated hard, became a human net in their end, denying Toronto the chance to tie it up and gagging the Maple Leaf Gardens crowd for the final time this season.

Shawn Burr would tap in an empty-net goal with 11 seconds left to ice it, but by that point the Wings were already mentally packed. “We knew it,” said Probert. “We knew we had it then.” Masterpiece of courage So we go on. This crazy series has one more game left, and this Red Wings season, which continues to spit out like tickertape, may yet have a few more surprises.

For now, consider this Game 6 victory a masterpiece of courage and perseverance, if not gorgeous hockey. Who would have thought the Wings would do this back in November? Who would have thought Bob Probert would put in a winner? Who would have thought . . .

“Where did you get that puck?” someone asked Kocur as he got dressed to go.

“Someone handed to me as we came off the ice. I was gonna give it to a fan, but when I found out it was Proby’s first playoff goal, hey, I had to give it to him.”

He looked across at his teammate, surrounded by reporters, still wearing his sweat-soaked T-shirt and that toothless grin, looking like a big kid with a lot to celebrate.

“You watch him in Detroit,” Kocur said. “Now that’s he’s got a little confidence, whoo, he’s gonna be unstoppable.”

He glanced around the rest of the room and he grinned, because the immediate became obvious. He was speaking for everybody. Can you even wait for Game 7 now?

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