RED WINGS FANS HAVE GOOD REASON TO WORRY

The Red Wings fan bites his fingernails. The Red Wings fan taps his feet. The Red Wings fan approaches a stranger in a Tampa Bay Lightning cap.

“How scared should we be?” he says.

“Well, if you’re asking me,” the Tampa Bay fan says, leaning back on his rocking chair, sliding a weed between his teeth, “pretty darn scared.”

Of course he’d say that. He doesn’t bite his fingernails. He doesn’t tap his feet. His team won its first-round playoff series in five games — including three shutouts — and is sweeping through its second round, three games to none. His team, top-seeded in the East, is doing what top-seeded teams are supposed to do: win most of the early games.

The Red Wings, top-seeded in the West, do not do that. They wrestle every team as if it were an alligator. First the alligator is on top of them, then they are on top of the alligator. Splish, splash. Up, down. This is how it goes. Splish, splash.

“How scared should we be?” the Red Wings fan says.

“Well, if you’re asking me,” says the man in a San Jose Sharks head, flashing his teeth in a sneering smile, “pretty darn scared.”

Sure. Easy for the shark to say. His team, the No. 2 seed, won its first round in five games, too, and is chewing through the mighty Colorado Avalanche as if it were dead fish dumped from a bucket. The Sharks scored 10 goals in the first three games. They make it look easy.

The Red Wings never make it look easy. Despite arguably the best roster in the NHL, they scored a single goal in the Game 1 loss to Calgary, and just two goals in Tuesday night’s Game 3 defeat. They have an arsenal of weapons, but often seem to struggle with the trigger. Pull. Misfire. Pull. Jam. Pull. Misfire.

Never easy.

Where are the young guns?

“How scared should we be?” the Red Wings fan says.

“If you’re asking me?” the Indiana Pacers fan says, wearing a mask of Larry Bird and a T-shirt that says “French Lick Is Eden.” “Pretty scared.”

Sure. What did you expect? In basketball, the strong teams dominate. The Pacers won four straight blowouts from their first-round opponent, the Boston Celtics, and their young stars, like Ron Artest, who is 24, helped lead the way.

The Red Wings are not so lucky. They rarely have a blowout. And their young stars are not leading the way. Pavel Datsyuk led the team in goals during the regular season, but he hasn’t scored in the playoffs. Not a single goal. Tuesday night, his bad defensive play allowed the game-winner in the net. He is not playing like Ron Artest. He is not stepping up.

Neither is his youthmate, Henrik Zetterberg, a spark plug all season for Detroit. He averaged nearly one assist every other game this season. In the playoffs, he has two assists in eight games. The Wings are relying on their old men — Lang, Hull, Yzerman, Joseph — and hoping their parts don’t break down.

“How scared should we be?” the Red Wings fan asks the New Jersey Nets fan and the San Antonio Spurs fan, whose teams have swept their first-round opponents and are now watching lots of TV while waiting for the next round.

“If you ask us,” they say, “very scared. Extremely scared. By the way, can you throw us the remote?”

What does the future hold?

It doesn’t have to be like this, does it? Isn’t it possible, in some bizarro world, that the team with the best talent, the team that develops what it has and buys what it needs, the team that has won three Stanley Cups in the last seven years, actually cruises through the early playoff rounds?

Isn’t it possible, in some parallel universe, that the favored team never lets the weaker team breathe? That the team with so many stars sees one of them rise and lead the way — instead of hoping for a different guy each night to come through? That a team that spent countless millions on goaltenders this year feels confident the man in the net will steal a game?

Isn’t it possible — anywhere in the galaxy — that a team as storied and as gifted and as beloved as the Red Wings could somehow make it easier on the fans in what is supposed to be the “easy” part of the postseason?

Or is this simply our fate? Gnawed fingernails? Twitching eyes? Nervous tics?

“Just tell me something,” the Red Wings fan says. “The owner paid a ton of money for this team. It has veteran talent. It has won more regular-season games than anyone else in the league. A team like that is bound to win a title, right? It can’t lose, right? How worried should we be?”

The man in the Yankees cap turns, shrugs, and points to the years 2003, 2002 and 2001.

“If you ask me . . .” he says.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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