PHOENIX — The game was more than halfway over when the whistle blew, the official raised his hand, and I knew the Red Wings were in trouble.
He was giving them a two-man advantage.
Now, it’s true, having two extra men should be a good thing in hockey. But if we’ve learned anything from this battle of the Rust Belt versus the Sun Belt, the land of the engine versus the land of the cactus, it’s that nothing goes the way it should.
And so a five-on-three advantage for the Wings turns into an emotional lift for the Coyotes, who seem to grow taller and stronger and faster and wilder the longer they deny Detroit its “inevitable” goal. The crowd comes alive. The arena begins to thump. And by the time the teams are again at full strength, the Coyotes are Mel Gibson in “Braveheart,” bleeding but awe-inspiring, and the Wings are back on their heels.
It happened in Game 2. It happened Sunday in Game 3. And next thing you know, Chris Osgood is fumbling a puck right onto a Coyote’s stick and then he’s dropping a puck that rolls off his leg and into the net, and then Phoenix gets a lucky ricochet goal and the Wings hit a post and the place goes nuts and the horn sounds and the defending Stanley Cup champions are in their biggest postseason hole since they lost to Colorado two years ago. They must win three of the next four just to advance out of the first round.
And now we’ll see what they’re made of.
“If we expect to redeem ourselves, we have to start doing it on the ice,” Brendan Shanahan said after Detroit sank, 3-2.
Shanahan shook his head, visibly disappointed. He had returned from injury to start this game, and 61 seconds in, he scored. He jumped in celebration, bad back and all. It was the Wings’ second goal, they led, 2-0, before Phoenix could break a sweat, and at that point, a third blowout in as many games seemed a very real possibility.
But series go seven games, and games go 60 minutes. You can’t rest, you can’t drift, you can’t rely on your Stanley Cup to win. This is a strange town for playoff hockey, hot, dry, with a raucous crowd that insists on wearing all white to the games, white T-shirts, white pants, white pom-poms. I thought I’d died and come back in a cup of yogurt.
But that blank white background is a perfect symbol for these Coyotes. They have no history. They have nothing to lose. And unless the Wings stop playing as if they’re protecting their reputation, the Coyotes might wake up startled by what they’ve done. Whiteout.
After the game, Osgood, to his credit, was one of the few Red Wings standing in the locker room when the press was allowed to enter.
“We tried to sit on our lead the entire game,” he said softly. “That’s so foreign to us. Usually when we’re up, 2-0, we go after them, we try to bury them. Today, we let them come, come, come. And with Phoenix, it only takes one goal with their fans to get back into it.”
Osgood is right. But he’s also culpable. That one goal was one he allowed with his own giveaway, a fumbled rebound that landed at the feet of Rick Tocchet the way a piece of raw meat lands in the lions’ cage. Forget it. That’s gone.
And just 81 seconds later, Jeremy Roenick smacked a prayer from the blue line, and it hit Osgood in the glove, squiggled out, bounced off his back leg and slowly swirled into the net behind him, as fans howled with delight. He looked like a kid who drops an easy fly ball in Little League.
“That usually doesn’t happen,” Osgood said. “I could handle that shot 10 times and not have it come off me that way. Instead, it spins into the net.”
Osgood faced 32 shots and stopped 29. And to be fair, the first two goals were on power plays.
Even so, a team like the Red Wings must be able to suck it up. Put it out of their minds. The best teams absorb the home team’s blows — even if it means losing a lead — but in the end, they find a way to win.
Didn’t happen Sunday.
Better happen Tuesday.
Coyotes feel lucky
“Luck’s gotta come my way sooner or later, ” Roenick said. He was dressed in a gray suit, his showered hair brushed back, his eyes full of delight. He was standing in the tunnel outside the Coyotes’ locker room. His young blond daughter, maybe 4 or 5 years old, was holding his hand, doing a little dance.
“Sometimes you need the breaks,” he said. “We got them tonight. My shot? Hey, I just closed my eyes and let her go!”
He laughed, and that’s the difference between being a Phoenix Coyote right now and being a Detroit Red Wing. This is no laughing matter to Detroit. The Coyotes can close their eyes and let it go. Won’t cost them anything. And although I don’t believe, deep down, the Coyotes really think they’re supposed to win this thing, if the Wings nudge them close enough to the treasure, they might just grab it without knowing what they’re doing.
“Is Game 4 a must-win now?” a reporter foolishly asked Shanahan.
“They’re all must-wins,” he answered.
Isiah Thomas used to say the difference between the good teams and the great ones is that the good teams don’t know how to close it out. The Wings had better hope the Coyotes are not up to greatness. No. More than that. They had better assert that greatness themselves.
The defense must tighten. The offense must attack. And it’s time for Osgood to win the Wings a game, instead of having good reasons why he couldn’t keep them from losing.
Also, if the refs want to help out, here’s an idea. Don’t give Detroit any more two-man advantages.
Things are tough enough.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.