PITTSBURGH – One last bullet came flying at Chris Osgood. It had kill all over it. He stopped it with his glove, pushed it away with his stick, and as the blue light swirled to mark the end of the game, he was flat on the ice. But not for long. The Red Wings were coming home. The Stanley Cup was coming with them. As they say in fairy tales, “All’s Well That Ends Red.”
Well, in Detroit fairy tales.
Got it. After six games. After six years. The Red Wings, knocked down in a gutting triple-overtime loss two days earlier, shook loose every demon that might have followed them to Pittsburgh and played the game they had to play on the night they had to play it, a humid night when the ice was tough and bodies were being knocked over like bowling pins. They flew high and they clamped down. They took a lead, and this time they held off the furious charge and a last-minute goal, they kept their heartbeat when everyone back home was losing theirs, fighting six skaters to their five, diving, blocking, using every last breath, enduring a final shot by Sidney Crosby that Osgood stopped with his glove, and pushed just far enough away to avoid a last-instant miracle by a charging Marian Hossa.
“We always have to make it interesting,” Osgood would tell the TV cameras.
Interesting? That ending would have killed most mortal men. But here, in enemy territory, the Wings used the courage and the pounding heart that got them this far, and in their 104th game of the season, they took it over the mountaintop.
All’s well that ends red. The Wizard of Oz
“It’s awesome, you can’t describe it,” Nicklas Lidstrom told NBC in the moments following the Game 6 victory Wednesday night, final score, 3-2, which was even closer than it sounds. “It’s a great feeling.”
And it’s a whole new crown in the same old kingdom, Hockeytown, thanks to an unflappable band of hockey brothers who epitomize the old and the young, the foreign and the North American, the cast-offs and the superstars.
Here was Valtteri Filppula, out of Finland, charging the net and finding a rebound just waiting, slapping it through Marc-Andre Fleury’s legs for a go-ahead goal.
Here was Brad Stuart, out of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, laying a check into Crosby that sent the league’s favorite superstar to the bench like a punch-drunk fighter.
Here, out of Sweden, was Henrik Zetterberg – and there was Zetterberg, and there was Zetterberg! – he was everywhere, on defense, blocking shots and clearing passes, on offense, assisting on the Wings’ first goal and scoring the third by charging through two defenders, firing a shot that dribbled through Fleury, and was knocked in by Fleury’s falling rear end. Zetterberg won the Conn Smythe Trophy as best player in the playoffs, and the way he played, he could have won two.
“It’s been a long way,” Zetterberg said afterward. “Last year was devastating but this is a great feeling.”
And here, at last, was Osgood, out of Peace River, Alberta, out of the Red Wings’ past, and out of the shadows, refusing to sink to people’s fears or doubts, stopping 20 shots, standing tall when he had to and low when he needed to, catching them, flicking them, denying them right down to the final furious seconds. He made the last play of the game, the finals and the season, then sprung to his feet in celebration. He was mobbed by his teammates, who know full well the doubts he held at bay.
“I’ve got a bigger heart than people think,” Osgood told the TV cameras.
He proved it – they all proved it. The Wings moved en masse Wednesday night, swarming Crosby every time he touched the puck, swarming Fleury whenever they had a chance, swarming the Penguins nearly every Pittsburgh power play, and swarming the third period until finally, with the blue lights swirling, the horn sounding, the season over, finally, they could swarm the Cup.
All’s well that ends red. Starting off with a bang
“Nicklas Lidstrom, come get the Stanley Cup,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced. “It’s yours to take back to Hockeytown.”
Lidstrom, the captain, held up that chalice, smiled broadly, then shook it at his gathered group of teammates who cheered like excited schoolchildren. Then, after a brief skate, he handed it off not to the biggest star on the team, but to Dallas Drake, who, at 39, nearly retired before this season, having never been to a finals. He came back for one more try. And here he was skating with the Cup.
All’s well that ends red. So it took a little longer than you thought. Put it in perspective. You waited two days. The franchise waited six years.
But it was well worth it. It was earned. These Red Wings played 22 playoff games this season, won 16 of them – and maybe none was as fire-forged as this one, taking a pair of two-goal leads, seeing them both cut to one, holding back the screaming white tide of the sold-out Igloo that knew it was watching its last home game of the season and wanted desperately to see one more in Detroit.
But the Wings are not easily rattled. They won every playoff round this season on the road. And you might say the home loss that preceded this final victory was instrumental in their story of 2008. For all the impressive things Detroit has done this season, coming back from that Game 5 heartbreak has to rank high on the list.
It would have been easy, maybe even forgivable, if the Wings had come out Wednesday night like a half-inflated tire. You never know how much a loss, when you are 35 seconds away from a title, can take out of you. Sure, you tell the media “we’re over it.” But nobody gets over a game like that so fast. It plays in your head. It dances with your demons. It haunts every “what if ” sentence you can think of.
This is where Mike Babcock and Lidstrom come in. This is where Chris Chelios and Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty and the wizened, red-headed spirit of Kris Draper come in. This is where all the guys who have been there before come in and tamp their hands down and say, “Easy, easy, we can handle this. We know what we’re doing.”
The Wings needed to make that point on the ice. Right away.
So Osgood, 35, began the game with a point-blank shot from Petr Sykora – last seen putting one past Ozzie to win Game 5 – only this time, on a much tougher shot, Osgood stonewalled him.
And Brian Rafalski, 34, who scored what could have been the game-winner in Game 5, fired a shot off a beautiful pass from Zetterberg and it flew off a Penguins’ shin pad and went past Fleury for the goal.
Men in their 30s. Younger men in their 20s. It is the Wings’ best asset, the combination of youth and experience, and they employed it beautifully in that first period, holding back the crowd and any inertia the Pens might have had from their victory two nights earlier.
And finally, the game, the season, and the six-year wait were over.
And we all fainted. The brightest of futures
The Wings may have won this thing in six games, but let’s be honest: The Penguins are a sleeping young giant, who could be awakened at any time. And for a while, it looked like this series might actually tilt their way. They are a formidable young group, these Penguins, with star power of Crosby and Fleury and Evgeni Malkin – who finally awoke Wednesday night, scoring the Pens’ first goal – and with 17 players under the age of 30, it would surprise no one to see these two teams in the finals again.
“The hockey gods were not on our side tonight,” Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien said. “They deserved to win the Stanley Cup.”
OK. He’s right. And the 2008 version is such a landmark event. It’s the first modern-era championship for Detroit that didn’t feature Steve Yzerman as captain or Scotty Bowman as coach. The first to be done without the benefit of signing any expensive free agent the Wings wanted. The first to be won with a European-born captain.
A whole new Cup in the same old kingdom. The salary cap was supposed to be the end of Detroit dominance, but Ken Holland and Jim Nill have managed to find diamonds despite the rough, and the Wings have been a winning but uncrowned franchise since 2002, when at least 10 potential Hall of Famers dotted their lineup.
There may not be that many legends on this team. But they wove a rich enough tapestry this season, from the excellence of the two reigning superstars, Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, to the steady, sterling example of Lidstrom, to the best pair of goalies in the NHL, Dominik Hasek, who helped bring them here, and Osgood, who took them over the mountain.
How great was this for Babcock, who came within a few periods of a Stanley Cup with Anaheim, and had to wonder if he’d ever be that close again? He kept this team balanced, calm, he smiled through the agony of Monday’s loss, and he was smiling a lot bigger late Wednesday night. “I’m just proud to be the coach of the Detroit Red Wings,” he said.
How great is it for Datsyuk and Zetterberg, who have now truly claimed the superstar banner from the likes of Yzerman and Shanahan and Fedorov. Until you win it all, until you lead the way, you always will live in the shadow of those who did it before you. No more of that for Pav and Hank. They are a tandem to beat. And their best years are surely ahead of them.
How great is this for McCarty, down and out of hockey a few months ago? Yet here he was back – not just in the NHL, but in the Stanley Cup finals, thanks to belief from a good friend, Draper, and a good front-office man, Holland. “This whole thing is a fairy tale to me,” McCarty told me not long ago.
And that was BEFORE he won another Cup. Hail to the captain
How great is this for Dan Cleary, the first player from Newfoundland to win a Cup? There may not be a lot of people up there, but Cleary will never have to pay for a drink again.
How great is this for the young guys, like Filppula, 24, and Darren Helm, 21, who will only get better? How great is for the old men like Chelios, 46, who showed his veteran class by never complaining about a bench spot during these finals, and Hasek – a 43-year-old Hall of Famer – who took the same approach.
And speaking of veterans, how great is this for Lidstrom, 38, who will never admit how much it means to him to win a Cup that will have his name engraved as the captain – the first European captain in NHL championship history? If that honor should go to anyone, it might as well go to perhaps the best defensemen in NHL history. There’s symmetry there, don’t you think?
How great is this for Mike Ilitch, who continues to pour money and staff into this organization, which continues to be the envy of the NHL among players? He came close to a recent title with the Tigers. He gets one here with his original sports franchise, and nobody will be able to say he did it by emptying a bigger bank vault than his competitors. It’s a salary cap era. Everyone gets the same chips. It’s how you play them.
All’s well that ends red. In the months to come, in the year ahead, there will be more Johan Franzen, Zetterberg and Osgood sweaters seen around town, and maybe fewer Yzermans and Shanahans and Haseks. That’s all good. All fine. It’s the natural progression of a franchise, and this franchise just took a quantum leap toward a bright, unencumbered future. The Wings did it the hard way, in a game – and a three-night stretch – that symbolized just how difficult it is to win the greatest trophy in major sports, even when you think you have the best team, right down to the final furious seconds.
It’s a whole new Cup in the same old kingdom. And even if it seemingly took forever, it feels right on time.
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.
PARADE IS FRIDAY
A parade to celebrate the Red Wings’ Stanley Cup championship is planned for Friday. Details were sketchy, but it is expected to start at 11 a.m. or 11:30 a.m.
The parade ro