RED WINGS GIVE, GET 1ST BLOOD

DENVER — The ugly thud could be heard in the rafters. It was Brendan Shanahan’s head smashing into glass. The bone cut the skin. The blood surged down his face. It ran in map-like lines, down his cheeks, chin and neck, trickling into a thin red river that dripped into the neckline of his jersey.

The fans jeered. The players cursed. The refs blew the whistle and dived into the scrum.

Game on.

The first chapter of this Red Wings-Avalanche playoff death match became offical when Peter Forsberg blindsided Shanahan with that elbow-leading body slam into the boards in the second period. That was the siren call of this series. That put it on the books. A bloodbath needs blood, right?

And a series needs drama. Friday night’s Game 1 had it — and then some. Excitement? It was like playing in the midst of a fireworks show. Intensity? Like doing heart surgery during an earthquake. Before it was over there would be standard heroics and dastardly deeds, from a Steve Yzerman goal to a Claude Lemieux dive, from Forsberg’s ejection to Darren McCarty’s five-minute penalty for clunking — who else? — Lemieux. There were smashes, gashes, guts and glory.

And it would end — perhaps fittingly — in overtime, with the most unlikely of goals, a quick wrist shot by Kirk Maltby, a grinder on the Grind Line, that hadn’t scored yet this postseason. Maltby finished it at 4:18 of the extra period.

“How many people do you think bet ‘Maltby in overtime’ as the winning goal?” the beefy forward was asked, after giving the Wings the 3-2 victory.

“Not too many,” he said, laughing. “I’ve never scored one before.”

Game on.

Still, for all the blood, all the familiar faces, all the standard heroes and villains of this already familiar rivalry, the story of this game was a man who was as new to the feud as Dennis Rodman is to leisure suits.

Bill Ranford, the 32-year-old goalie acquired in March as an afterthought, a man who still can’t tell one Detroit highway from another, a man who had more rust on him than your first bicycle and who was only tapped to start when Chris Osgood and his nine-game playoff winning streak had to scratch with a bad knee, that Bill Ranford — the Remember-Me-I’m-Bill Ranford? — played a magnificent game.

“He was great,” coach Scotty Bowman said.

Did you hear that? Scotty said “great!”

Give the goalie the game puck.

Do they give out game pucks?

Nothing to lose

“I had nothing to lose,” said a seemingly relaxed Ranford after it was all over. “I was thrown in with three games behind me. I just had to go out there and compete.”

He did far more than that. He stood tall. He stood wide. He stopped shots with his stick, his skate, his knee, shoulder and elbow. But mostly he stopped his heartbeat from racing too fast, his reflexes from jumping too quickly, and his internal doubt at being considered a has-been from ever coming close to the surface.

“I have nothing to prove to anyone,” Ranford had said before this contest. “I only have something to prove to myself — that I can still play this game.”

Consider that point made. On Friday night, Ranford — who won a Stanley Cup when he was 21, and was once considered the best in the business before tumbling into a series of bad teams and bad seasons — gave one of those performances that exists inside the heart of every former champion who used to be the star and has somehow now been relegated to the chorus line.

Ranford turned away 37 of 39 Colorado shots. And they weren’t easy shots. Here was “Wild Bill” kicking away a whizzer by rookie Milan Hejduk. And stuffing Lemieux from point-blank range and denying screaming shots from Joe Sakic, the Colorado captain. And surviving the hardest stone you can throw at a goalie — a 5-on-3 disadvantage — and handling it as if he were going for a morning drive.

No goals allowed in the second period. No goals in the third period. No goals in the overtime.

At one point in his stonewalling efforts, I actually saw Bowman smile.

A smile?

“Did you have any doubts that you could still play at this level?” Ranford was asked after it was over.

He sighed. “I don’t know if anybody — unless you’ve been through it — can imagine the disappointment that I felt as an athlete playing with Tampa Bay this year,” he said. “When you have to battle every game just to stay close — well, it took the best of me to bounce back when I was traded here.”

“What was your reaction when you found out you were coming to the Red Wings?” someone asked.

“Well,” he laughed, “it was either the minors or Detroit. You go figure.”

Avs blow big chance

Now. I’m not sure Detroit fans accepted how big a deal Ranford’s start really was. Folks, this is a man who hasn’t played NHL hockey in three weeks, and hasn’t started a playoff game in three years. Three years? And now he was the last line of defense in the bloodiest rivalry in hockey?

That’s not just a substitution. That’s like doing a rock concert with a stand-in lead singer. Like arguing before the Supreme Court with a stand-in lawyer. Yeah, it can be done, but it’s awfully impressive if it comes off without a hitch.

Let’s face it. Ranford was as playoff-rusty as the LA Clippers. The only other time he played Colorado this season was when he was with Tampa Bay, and he gave up four goals. The Wings already risked being out of sync thanks to their long layoff. Every goalie has his own style, not just of stopping the puck, but of clearing it, of reacting to teammates.

But Ranford got more and more in the groove as he went along, and he certainly is giving Colorado something to think about this morning. Friday was clearly the Avs’ best chance to steal an advantage. The Wings hadn’t played in so long, they had moss on their skates. They were on the road, in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains, playing with a backup goalie.

They still won.

Forsberg and his elbow can ponder that over breakfast.

“What do you think?” someone asked Shanahan in the hallway after the game.

He eyelid was puffed and bloody and black with thread, and looked as if it had been stitched in an Army field hospital. He still had traces of blood down his neck.

“I think,” he said dryly, “the intensity is still there.”

Blood has been shed. Anger has been lit. The game is on, and so is the heat. In hockey circles, we call it fun.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at1-313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 6:30-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).

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