One by one, in moments like these, he pulls us back into his rooting section. Here was Sergei Fedorov Thursday night, second period, the game dangerously close, chasing a loose puck, accelerating until he gathered it in, then juking on the Phoenix defender, Gerald Diduck, who fell to the ice just trying to keep up. Keep up? It was like trying to bottle a hurricane. Sergei curled past the fallen player as if racing a lawn mower around a tree stump, then glided until the perfect angle on the goalie came into his crosshairs. The crowd rose like an admiral on a periscope, roaring out directions. Ready …aim …fire!

Goal.

And a few more fans lined up behind him.

If Fedorov began these playoffs as the least popular name on the Red Wings roster, he is rising faster than an IPO of an Internet stock. Mostly because, allowing for his prolonged contract negotiations, his off-the-cuff comments, and his occasional pout, there is still one thing undeniable about this guy: He makes plays.

He makes them out of passes. He makes them out of shots. He makes them out of rebounds and he makes them out of thin air. Sometimes he makes them for his teammates with blazing penetration and pinpoint assists. And sometimes he makes them by himself.

“Did you just create that move as you went along?” Fedorov was asked, about the goal that iced the Wings’ 3-1 victory over Phoenix and got them off the ledge of this first-round series.

“Well,” Fedorov said, “I try it sometimes in practice.”

In practice?

“Sergei,” said coach Scotty Bowman, “is one of the few guys who can create something like that.”

Who are the others? David Copperfield? God? Fedorov was on the ice for all three of the Detroit goals Thursday. He has five goals in five games. He is the best player on either roster right now. And after the game when he was introduced by the PA man as one of the stars, the crowd brought the noise and the funk.

“That,” said Fedorov, smiling, “made me feel very, very good.”

The Pied Piper of Second Chances.

The go-to guy

It was not so long ago, less than 100 days, that people here were calculating how five draft picks would erase the memory of Fedorov forever. He had gone unsigned all year, he had all but closed the door on Detroit, Carolina had made him a massive offer, and more than a small percentage of Wings fans felt the team would be fine without him. Remember? Let him go. Who needs him? Critics pointed to the Wings’ excellent record without him. What they forgot is how insignificant that record is come this time of year. Go ask the New Jersey Devils. They had the best regular-season record in the East and now they’re fighting for their lives in the first round against Ottawa. They would love a go-to guy like Fedorov.

“Can you imagine having five draft picks right now and not having No. 91?” Bowman was asked.

“That would be no good,” he said.

Right. Neither would thermonuclear war.

The fact is, the idea of giving up Fedorov for anything right now seems preposterous. The way the Wings have clawed and bumped through this first round, which the Wings lead, three games to two, they might be home by now without him.

“Mr. Ilitch made the right decision,” Bowman said. “He basically said, ‘I’d rather have Sergei Fedorov and not have five No. 1 draft picks and not have
$26 million.’ A lot of owners wouldn’t have said that.

“But when you consider what’s happened with contracts since then, he looks like a bargain.”

A bargain? Is that how fast things change in sports? Or is that how well Fedorov is playing right now? It’s not just his goal scoring, it’s his direction changing speed, his penetration and his passing.

Take the beautiful cross-ice feed to Steve Yzerman on a power play Thursday, so perfect for scoring, Yzerman slammed his stick against the boards when he missed.

Or take Detroit’s first goal, a re-direct by Tomas Holmstrom off a Slava Kozlov shot. That one began with Sergei, too, using his speed to lasso a loose puck on a breakaway, then sliding a beautiful pass to Holmstrom for a point-blank shot. The rebound found it’s way around and out to Kozlov, and you know the rest.

But make no mistake. It was Fedorov’s grit that began that play and kept it going. He was the gunpowder in the firecracker.

“He got inside,” Bowman said. “He made it happen.”

He is not being selfish out there. He is being a star.

The $12-million bonus

Of course, cynics will suggest that Fedorov can play hard and still be selfish. After all, if the Wings make the Western Conference finals, they are obligated to hand over a $12 million bonus to Fedorov, part of the Carolina deal they matched. Inevitably, there are those who say he’s playing for the money.

“I know everyone thinks this,” he told me the other day. “I expect it. But I will get the money eventually anyhow, over the other years of the contract. I don’t play hard just because of money. I play hard for same reason we all play hard, to win Stanley Cup. I hope people will see this eventually.”

Keep scoring. They will. Anyhow, even if Fedorov had bonus-on-the-brain, he would be working hard at his job to make more cash. How many of us wouldn’t say the same thing about ourselves?

Meanwhile, he has been an industrious presence since returning, working hard, watching what he says, playing it very low key.

“He is a different guy now,” said defenseman Slava Fetisov. “He is more mature. He learned a lot by that experience.”

“Do you think he learned how fickle the public’s affection can be?” I asked center Igor Larionov.

“Let’s hope so,” he said.

Maybe this is why Fedorov enjoyed the shower of cheers that washed over him after the game Thursday. The fans know what he’s doing. They know he’s unique. After all, a lot of guys get breakaways in this series. But when Fedorov comes down the ice with the puck on his stick, you hear a collective gulp from the Phoenix bench.

When asked about Sergei’s magical scoring move Thursday, Phoenix goalie Jimmy Waite sighed, “I wish it had been somebody else.”

Wings fans don’t. Which represents a change of heart. There was a time when they said, “Who needs him?” but that time is very much behind us. Mostly because of the answer.

The answer is the Wings need him. He proved it Thursday, and he will continue to do so with each passing game, the Pied Piper Of Second Chances, and his merry band of red-clad followers growing larger every day.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581. He will sign copies of “Tuesdays With Morrie” 1-2 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble, Rochester Hills, and 7:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday at Barnes & Noble, Grosse Pointe Woods.

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