RED WINGS GO AWAY MAD – BUT NOT EVEN

I’ve seen heavyweight fights go like this: One guy comes out on fire and gets the crowd all worked up. Pow! Pow! His fists are flying, and his opponent takes every shot, the blood spitting from his face, until he looks like he’ll go down any moment — which only excites the aggressor more. Only the opponent doesn’t go down. He stays standing. Blow after blow. And finally, the first guy, exhausted from all this punching with no reward, takes a breath, says,
“Hey, what’s with this lug?”

And pow! The other guy knocks him out.

It wasn’t boxing Monday at Joe Louis Arena. It might as well have been. If the Red Wings had put any more sweat into that first period, they would have been taken off on stretchers and given fluids intravenously. What else are you supposed to do but rush the net, storm the goalkeeper, and pound the hell out of anybody near the boards?

What else?

Well, scoring would be nice.

But it didn’t happen. Not enough. And in the few stolen moments when the Red Wings took a breath Monday night, the Minnesota North Stars, who must wear four-leaf clovers under their uniforms, got all they needed. This is what they got: Another win. A 2-0 lead in this first-round playoff series.

And a trip home for the next two games, with one skate on the neck of the favored Red Wings.

The Wings got mad. But they didn’t get even.

“The other night I could complain about effort; tonight, I can’t,” coach Bryan Murray sighed after the Wings’ second straight home loss to the North Stars, 4-2. “We played hard, to a man. I have no apologies for the effort.”

No. All he has is the final score.

And some churning emotions.

Mad. But not even. The North Stars had their moments

Which is probably how most fans feel this morning, at least those who expected that the Norris Division leader should beat a team that qualified for the playoffs only because of the strike delay. Those fans might be grumbling about holding penalties that weren’t called Monday night. Or the seemingly lucky bounce that helped score the North Stars’ winning goal. Or all the near misses the Wings had on shots near the Minnesota net.

But let’s be honest: the Wings didn’t own this game every minute they were out there. They could barely win a face-off — which is unforgivable if you’re going to play aggressive hockey. They didn’t defend shorthanded, at least not well enough. And while they got thrills from their own power play, they got no production.

In fact, the Wings’ power play had as much trouble getting started as a Florida car on an Alaska morning. Hey, somebody find the gas pedal on this thing. Does it really take four Harlem Globetrotters weaves before you bring the puck across the blue line?

But OK. Having said all that, I’ll also say this: On another night, Detroit is easily good enough to overcome such things.

Unfortunately, this was this night.

“During the course of the year, maybe you have a half-dozen games like this where you play harder but you don’t win,” captain Steve Yzerman admitted. “Doesn’t matter. At this point, all that counts is the final score.”

Now. Know this: Monday was not Saturday, when the Stars played the aggressor and won. No. Monday was Detroit player smashing Minnesota player into the boards, and Detroit player swarming the net and diving for any loose puck. Monday was 30 shots-on-goal for the Wings and only 20 for Minnesota.

Yet somehow, it came up loss. It seems sadly fitting that the final shot by the Wings was a strong slap by Nicklas Lidstrom that hit goalie Jon Casey in the pads — without Casey even seeing it.

It also seems fitting that the final shot by the North Stars was into an open net. Pow!

What’s with these Minnesota lugs? They have to beat the clock, too

In the locker room before the game, Bryan Murray had chuckled at the way things change at playoff time. “We lose the first game, 4-3, and everyone wants to know what’s wrong?” he said, shaking his head.

It’s unfair. That’s true. But so is this: The season shrinks during the playoffs. One game is like five, and two is like 10. Every element is giant-sized. Especially when you’re going on the road, against an opponent that upset everyone last year en route to the Stanley Cup finals.

“Are you surprised?” someone asked Bob Gainey, the North Stars coach.

“Yes,” he said. “I never figured, ‘Hey, we’ll drop into Detroit, stay a few days, and win two games.’ “

Great. Sarcasm.

Well. How else do you look at a night like this? There is no reason to think the Wings can’t win this series. They still have the better team, if you ask me. And they know how to win on the road. Sure, odds are against them, having to go into a foreign arena and win some games.

Then again, isn’t that what they were saying about Minnesota a few days back?

This loss might not be fun. It might not be fair. It is simply fact. “You have games like this during the regular season,” goalie Tim Cheveldae agreed,
“the only difference is, you’re going against a clock now.”

He looked down and sighed.

Mad, but not even.

And the season just shrank some more.

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