They left for the airport with the city waving goodby like a war bride. Would the Red Wings be back? Would there be a Game 6? Would this love affair between a motor town and a little-engine- that-could end on a Canadian battleground, thousands of miles away? Could that happen?

“No! Come back!” the crowd at Joe Louis Arena seemed to scream Monday night, as the Wings fell to the Oilers, 3-2, their third loss in this best-of-seven Campbell Conference final. “Whatever you do, make sure you come home alive!”

A return home would mean a win in Edmonton Wednesday night in Game 5. A return home would be a swipe at redemption for this game, this night, when the bubble burst under the sticky warmth of a stuffed Joe Louis Arena.

This was a stranglehold, a death grip, a game that would not let you go, made you watch, as a one-goal lead by the Oilers survived a blitzkrieg by Detroit in the final period. How many chances? How close? How close?

“What was it like out there?” someone asked Wings goalie Glen Hanlon afterward. “What were you thinking in that third period?”

“By that point it was so hot,” he said, “I was just trying to catch my breath. It was hard to remember if I was 30 years old or 50.”

Thirty? Fifty? Eighty? This was a game that would age you without shame. Remember that the last time there had been a possible farewell game here it had ended gloriously, with Jacques Demers doing a victory leap and throwing a puck to his wife as the crowd went wild. The Wings had beaten Toronto in Game 7 of their series. They were advancing. There was life and hope.

This time, when the final horn sounded, there was little of either. Edmonton had taken two games in Detroit, both by a single goal. And the Wings, playing with a patchwork defense, must now win three in a row from the most potent offense in hockey to drag their incredible season into one more playoff round.

How old will we be by then? A hundred and twenty? Still no explosion

This was not the night the critics said was coming. This was not the explosion, the night when the Oilers gushed, when all that talent broke down the closet door it had been locked behind. “None of the games have been like that,” said Wings center Steve Yzerman, whose team has effectively stopped the big names such as Gretzky and Messier. “That’s what’s frustrating.”

Once again, the Wings were inches short of victory. They have long since proven they can play with — and beat — this team. Now all they want is a scoreboard to reflect it.

Monday was an almost, a slugfest that kept everybody riveted. Everybody? Sure. Wasn’t everybody watching this game? Didn’t every bar have its TV on? Didn’t every driver have it on the radio? You could almost feel the city’s emotions go up and down like a chest under a doctor’s stethoscope. All night long. In and out. Breathe. Don’t breathe.

Edmonton scored first, the Wings tied, then moved ahead. Edmonton retaliated. Up, down. In, out. The Oilers got their would-be game winner on a pretty pass from Wayne Gretzky to Mike Krushelnyski who put it past Hanlon toward the end of the second period.

But who knew that then? There was still another period to be played. Or perhaps fought is a better word. The Wings skated out as if their lives hung in the balance, they shot strongly, unceasingly — they would get eight recorded chances to Edmonton’s two — and yet Oiler goalie Grant Fuhr, the hero of this series so far, was a machine. “We seemed to always hit his leg, his stick, something,” Detroit’s Shawn Burr said. “Jeez, the guy can’t be that

big to be everywhere.”

But it seemed that way.

And then, suddenly, it was over.

A frightening lead So for the first time in this incredible hockey series the tally matches everyone’s expectations. Edmonton leads three games to one now, a frightening lead for a frightening team. And the task before the Red Wings is now as formidable as people once thought stepping on the ice with the Oilers would be.

“How big is this game?” someone had asked Jacques Demers in the locker room before Monday night’s contest. “Is this the biggest one yet?”

“Well, if you go down 3-1 to Edmonton . . . ” he said, pausing to think.
“Put it this way. When we came back from 3-1 against Toronto, they called that a ‘miracle.’ But that was the wrong word. Against Edmonton I think the word miracle would apply.”

And so that is what goes atop the wish list now. A miracle. Three straight.
“If anybody can do it . . . ” the Detroit war brides seemed to say. But they gave their farewell cheers with a mixture of hope and realism. The plane is gone. The future of this remarkable series now rests on the Wings and a prayer.

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