by | May 23, 1997 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Now finish it.

Oh, I know the more popular song this morning is the sweet chorus of Thursday night’s spectacular down at Joe Louis Arena, where the Red Wings so dominated the defending Stanley Cup champions Colorado Avalanche you’d have thought Patrick Roy was closing his eyes every time Detroit shot. It was fun. It was loud. It was the perfect date, the jackpot, the night when your team looks better than any team in the world. One-sided? The score was 6-0. Efficient? The Wings didn’t even use Canadians to score until the fifth goal.

But the local lads are not done storming the castle, folks, not until they win one more, and when they wake up this morning in the Rocky Mountain air, their first thought should not be yesterday but tomorrow.

Finish it.

Trust me. Great teams don’t get hypnotized by their success — even as much success as the Wings had in Game 4, and there was enough for a dozen Zig Ziglar seminars. No, great teams kill the snake when they have it by the throat. And, man, does it look like the Wings have the Avs by the throat. The Colorado players have lost their edge. The coach may have lost his mind. (Last I saw Marc Crawford, he was yelling at Steve Yzerman, perhaps the first person to do that since Steve’s mom.)

You can’t even call this team the Avalanche because the way it’s playing, Avalanche is a misnomer. The Pebbles. The Snowflakes, maybe.

But where was the Avalanche? The Colorado players came into Thursday night talking a lot of trash and went home tying to remove their skates from their mouths. Their mighty offense managed two shots in the first period. Their penalty-killing units — remember when they used to brag about those? — gave up two more power-play scores.

And Roy, their trump card, their all-world goalie, the biggest talker before the game, was yanked after the second period, presumably for his own mental health. Wings fans, stuck with an understudy, began perhaps the most unlikely chant ever heard in Detroit: “WE WANT ROY! WE WANT ROY!”

Avalanche? The only thing I saw rolling downhill was the memory of this team as champion.

But, having said that, I have to say this: It is not over, not until there’s one more blue light on one more winning scoreboard.

The Wings know this. And if they’re truly a team of destiny, they will play like it, too.

A night of stars

Now I’m not trying to downplay the Game 4 performance. You don’t get too many shows like this in the conference finals. It was Evander Holyfield-Richard Simmons. It was Godzilla-Scooby Doo. At different points, the Wings had shots-on-goal leads of 14-2, 19-3 and 38-16.

No matter what Colorado tried, things kept coming out Detroit’s way. Every bounce. Every pass. Even a loose door near the Colorado bench — which caused a 13-minute delay, and gave the Avs a much-needed rest — didn’t help their cause. The Wings skated out from that delay and put two more pucks in the net.

The door might have been symbolic. The Avs are unhinged.

You saw it in the dumb penalties they took early and the desperate fights they initiated late. You saw it in the screaming vitriol Crawford unleashed at Wings coach Scotty Bowman.

“The story of the game wasn’t the fights after it,” Bowman said. “Don’t take away from the play on the ice.”

“Are you surprised at how you’re dominating?” he was asked.

“Nothing surprises me in this game.”

Well. He might be the only one. If someone had predicted a 6-0 victory by Detroit to take a 3-1 lead in this series, well, the next thing that person would predict would be trouble in Frank and Kathie Lee’s marriage.


A word here about several of Thursday’s stars: Igor Larionov deserved a night like this. He hasn’t always been in the right place at the right time. He played for the Soviet’s Red Army team when doing so meant lowering your head before a dictator coach. When he refused, he was punished.

Then he came to the NHL and landed first in Vancouver, a team without much chance, then in San Jose, a team with no chance.

Finally, he came to Detroit. And finally, Detroit took him to Thursday night, and Thursday night took him to two goals in the first period. The first was a ricochet off a Colorado player’s stick. The second came to him via two teammates. Another night, the puck isn’t there so easily. Another night, it bounces the other way.

This was not another night. This was Igor’s night. He swung, the puck lifted past Roy, and the building went wild. Two goals. The cushion. It couldn’t happen to a more important, unassuming, 36-year-old player.

And how about goalie Mike Vernon? True, much of the night he was as lonely as the Maytag repairman. He could have hung an “out-to-lunch” sign on the net during the first period and the score wouldn’t have changed. But whenever the Avs even poked their head near his cave, he walloped their shots as if playing one of those whack-a-mole games. Vernon earned his first shutout of these playoffs and the fifth of his career.

For so many years, the Wings’ playoffs road was shaken by the presence of the proverbial “hot goaltender.”

Finally, he seems to be in a Detroit uniform.

There was also the continued intense play of Sergei Fedorov (goal, assist), the excellent penalty killing of Yzerman, two goals by Kirk Maltby — who had but one career playoff goal entering the game — and the wonderful taste for the net that Slava Kozlov has developed. He went one-on-one with Roy and schooled the most heralded goalie in hockey. Drew him right, cut left, then lifted the puck between Roy’s stick and his body. Kozlov has eight goals in the playoffs. He’s like Cris Carter in the NFL. All he does is score.

Ultimate victory

Now finish it. The Wings are one victory away from reaching the second chance at the Cup they have so coveted since losing to New Jersey two years ago. It’s close enough to sniff, it’s maddeningly close, but they should think only about Colorado. Every champion will tell you the hardest game to win is the closer. The Wings have pushed the Avs to the ledge. Now they must push them off. Not later. Not sometime in the next three games. Not when they come back home to Joe Louis. Now. Next game. Saturday night. End it.

Because here is their advantage of the moment: The Avs are worried about losing their crown. Their coach is unnerved. Their goalie is unnerved. They have never faced this before. Remember, they came to Denver, got Roy, went right to the top and never looked back. They haven’t lost a playoff series since they became the Avalanche. Consequently, there is no telling how they’ll play when such a loss dangles over their heads.

Some teams collapse. Some fear failure more than they covet winning. If the Avs are susceptible to that — and it sure looks that way — the Wings should stick it to them. Finish them off.

After Thursday, it’s the only thing they haven’t done.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!