Rookies tie it up in unlikely fashion

MITCH ALBOM REMINDS FANS HOW THE WINGS’ YOUTH GIVES AND TAKES AWAY

Rookies tie it up

in unlikely fashion

Goalie down. That’s what you saw. After three crazy periods and 15 minutes of overtime, a flock of Red Wings rookies came after Jonas Hiller and finally, as if chopping forever at a redwood tree, they would leave him flat.

Gustav Nyquist, all of 23 years old, pushed a puck furiously down center ice, chasing it as much as controlling it, and Hiller came out to poke it away. It hit an Anaheim teammate, came back off Hiller’s skate and sat waiting for another charging Detroit rookie, Damien Brunner, like a sudden steak that had fallen on his plate. Brunner did what a hockey player does – swept it to the net – and just like that, a team that had been dying with its youth was alive again with its youth.

That’s the thing about being young; you have so much room to grow up fast.

In a first-round series that already has been marked by youthful contributions (remember Nyquist’s winner in the Game 2 overtime?) and youthful mistakes (see Game 3), Brunner kept the Wings alive in a game that, unlike two nights earlier, they truly deserved to win, even if at times it looked like they might not.

After the 3-2 victory Monday night, they are tied up now, two games apiece, it’s a best-of-three series, and the image that remains is Hiller, who faced 49 shots – and for much of the night was simply impenetrable – finally going down on his back, a man in his net, realizing that, no matter what, he’s coming back to Detroit for at least one more game.

Goalie down. Rookies flying.

Thrills, chills and spills

Before you knew how this game would turn out, before you leaped from your couch when that puck was sitting there waiting for Brunner to sweep it home, before all that, you knew something else. You knew it by the deafening noise, by the grinding skating – heads down, mouths agape, arms churning, legs burning – you knew it by the desperate chops at the puck and the flipping hard checks and their 40 plus-shots in the first three periods alone. You knew it by the thunderous chants at Joe Louis Arena with each thunderous hit, the crowd in a collective “YOU GOT KRONWALLED!” with a nasty Niklas Kronwall check.

This is what you knew: The Red Wings were fighting for their lives.

The difference between Game 3 and Game 4 of this playoff series was as obvious as the difference between spinach and ice cream. The Wings came into Game 3 on a high, came unraveled on a penalty, and came unhinged down the stretch, losing the game by four goals and Justin Abdelkader for two games and looking suddenly at no-option-but-to-win-it showdown in Game 4.

And after 60 minutes of regulation, after mistakes and retribution, after one (really, one?) power-play opportunity, the season, for all intents and purposes, hung on the precarious balance of overtime.

Mr. Smith’s roller-coaster

But as we said, youth is funny. To that point, the story of the game had been best symbolized by Brendan Smith, the Wings’ rookie defenseman. Smith is 24, and not long ago was carrying a stick for the Wisconsin Badgers. But here he was Monday night, in what could easily have been the Wings’ final home game of the season, his team parched for goals, as dry as a buzzard’s beak.

So what does he do? Gets caught in an awkward position after a puck ricochets off the back wall, gets stuck in a bad dance with teammate Kyle Quincy that leaves Smith poking around Quincy’s legs like a kid who loses a marble under the kitchen table.

Too late. Matt Belesky, the Anaheim winger, swoops in, steals the puck, gets a rebound and fires on Jimmy Howard, whomping it off the goalie’s pads for a score.

Stuff like that can’t happen in a critical playoff game. But stuff like that happens when the culprit is 24 years old and playing in the fourth NHL playoff game of his life.

In a different world, a different career, someone might say, “Don’t worry kid, there’ll be better days.” But in hockey, the better day can be a period away. Smith would tie the game with a hard shot from just inside the blue line. Goat to hero – with plenty of time to go.

A Pavel Datsyuk beauty would again tie the score at 2, and overtime loomed. It is often a time for big name heroes to take control. But on a night when Henrik Zetterberg had eight shots on goal – and none that went in – it was a Swiss rookie who sent the team leaping into each others’ arms, and left the Anaheim netminder flat on his back.

Goalie down. Red Wings up. It’s still a struggle, but youth is funny. It doesn’t know any better. Which means anything can happen.

On we go.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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