ST. LOUIS — It was the perfect portrait to end this series. Brendan Shanahan scoring over a fallen Grant Fuhr, raising his fists as the red light went on. For so much of this first round, the pose was something opposite, Fuhr upright and strong, stonewalling the Red Wings, sending them away, their heads down, their pockets empty.
But here, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, the long battle came to an end. The Wings are finally, finally, finished playing St. Louis for the 1996-97 season. They advance to the second round. And the winning shot came on a sweet cross-crease pass to Shanahan, who held there for a frozen moment as Fuhr spun, sprawled, and went down, down, down.
He shoots, he scores.
Leave your Blues behind.
“I heard somebody on our bench yell, ‘Go to the net!’ ” Shanahan said after the Wings eliminated St. Louis with a 3-1 victory. “I think one of their guys fell down or something. So I went to the net, the puck kind of rebounded to me, and I put in the garbage.”
“Do you know who yelled. ‘Go to the net?’ ” he was asked.
“No, it was just some voice.”
Hmm. Could have been a teammate. Could have been a fan screaming in Detroit.
Or maybe it was some higher power. For here was a game which, at times, seemed fated to come out the Detroit way. For example, the Wings committed the first deadly sin — falling behind — yet came back to survive it.
They committed a second deadly sin — going six minutes on a power play without a score — yet survived it.
They committed a third deadly sin, letting the Blues tie the game in the final minute of the second period — a Pierre Turgeon goal that was taken away by the officials, thanks to hockey’s dumbest rule, the skate-in-the-crease.
“That was a huge moment for us,” admitted center Igor Larionov. “First we are thinking that it’s tied, 2-2. Then, all of a sudden, we still have the lead. It forced us to concentrate on little things, to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
“Did you think it was a goal?” he was asked.
“Yes, I did. It was heartbreak for them.”
“But heart-lift for us.”
Leave your Blues behind.
The Vernon comeback
Of course, any time you win a game 3-1, it is more about your defense than your offense. And once again, the Wings confounded the Blues with the Russian Unit, and got great goaltending from Mike Vernon, who allowed one shot past him 2:12 into the game — a solo dive bomb by Brett Hull — and stopped everything thereafter. Vernon’s play in this series, particularly these last two games, will likely cement him with the starting job he thought he’d lost forever just a few months ago.
“We all played with a kind of desperation,” Vernon said. And the third period was his shining hour, when the Blues came out smoking and Vernon doused them, kick-saving, pad-saving, gloving pucks like sharply hit baseballs. A lot of attention came to Fuhr in this series, and when the Blues won, it was “they won, thanks to Fuhr.”
“Does that mean you won this series?” Vernon was asked.
“No, we won the series,” he said.
He’s right. A team effort. And if Shanahan’s goal was the sentence that summed it up, then here was the exclamation point: Kirk Maltby, one of those kids who just keeps grinding and grinding, scoring the first playoff goal of his career to seal the victory in the final period. Maltby is all of 21 — same age as Tiger Woods; what is it with these kids? — but he played hard-nosed hockey all series, just like his “Nasty Brothers” teammates, Kris Draper and Darren McCarty and Joe Kocur.
And here was Maltby in the third period, rushing the net, plucking off a McCarty rebound and ripping it past Fuhr.
“Did you get the puck?” he was asked afterward.
“I think somebody else did,” he gushed. “I hope so, anyhow. When it happened, it was the farthest thing from my mind.”
Remember that Maltby really wasn’t a factor last year, and Shanahan, Larry Murphy and Tomas Sandstrom — all of whom contributed big on Sunday — weren’t even with the team.
These are not your same old Red Wings. Even if they do put you through the same old emotions.
That ‘C’ stands for calm
As the last of the players dressed and left the locker room, heading for the bus, Steve Yzerman emerged alone, donning a gray suit, his hair still wet. He has been through so many of these series now, he almost looked stoic.
“What do you tell yourself to feel right now?” he was asked.
“Just to relax, go home, don’t get too worked up over anything,” he said.
He shrugged. What was he supposed to do? Cheer? The captain has had his heart lifted and smashed so many times over the years, you hear caution in every word he says.
But a win is still a win, a series is still a series, and the Wings should be proud that they finished this thing when they had the chance, and didn’t slump and allow a Game 7. They needed a Game 7 last year against St. Louis, and the energy they expended in winning it left them spent for the conference finals.
Better this way, with a few days off to prepare for the next team, and to take some lessons from this round: First of all, avoid slow starts, such as the loss in Game 1. Come out as if every game is the last game. It makes things so much easier.
Second, don’t worry about pretty shots. Get the puck at the goaltender and take what bounces back.
Third, don’t monkey with what works. Scotty Bowman’s ill- fated experiment with Sergei Fedorov on defense left the Wings semi-discombobulated until he finally reunited the Russians for good in Game 5. Scotty, if it ain’t broke .
But, OK. Plenty of time for strategy. For now, say good-bye to the Kiel Center, a raucous place which, on Sunday, seemed less a hockey site than a McCarthy-like rally in the early ’50s. In response to the Russian Five, fans waved signs that read “Your Mother Wears RED Combat Boots” and “Make the REDS sing the Blues.” They chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!” whenever the Russians skated.
Hey, St. Louis. It’s 1997. The Cold War is over. Stay with the program, OK?
Or don’t. The Wings don’t care now. They move on, continuing their season. And the postcard they’ll send back is a picture of Shanahan, standing over the
“unbeatable” goalie, his fists raised in the air.
Leave your Blues behind.
Anybody for a second round?