SEASON OF PROMISE HALTED BY RED LIGHT

CHICAGO — The game ended the way they all seemed to end, the way this whole damned, crazy post-season has ended. Bang — and you’re dead. Less than 100 seconds left on the regulation clock, the crowd on its feet, screaming like beasts. Paul Ysebaert bumped into Sergei Fedorov deep in his own end. The puck squirted loose, here came Chicago’s Greg Gilbert, scraping it out, shoveling it to a driving Brent Sutter, who pushed it past Tim Cheveldae for the only goal that mattered — which was also the only goal of the night. Game over.

Red light.

Darkness.

“I watched that whole play like I was in slow motion,” said a teary-eyed Shawn Burr after the Wings were swept from the playoffs with a heartbreaking, 1-0 defeat to Chicago. “I was screaming for someone to pick up Gilbert, just screaming, ‘Get him! Someone get him!’

No one got him. And a few terrible moments later, the Wings skated off the ice, heads down, showered in beer cups and noise. As coach Bryan Murray made his exit, a broom flew from the stands and landed at his feet.

Red light.

Darkness.

“It’s going to be so weird getting up tomorrow with no hockey,” Chevelade said. Home for the summer? The Red Wings? Already? That’s like watching the Rolling Stones leave the stage after just two numbers. Like mowing half the lawn. Like shaving the left side of your face. Talk about incomplete! I’m still waiting for the Wings to play a good game against Chicago, a team they beat five times during the regular season.

It’s not going to happen.

“They were the better team; they won four games; they played better in all four,” Cheveldae said. He looked at his feet. How sad a picture he was, dressed in the bright yellow sport jacket that had brought him luck in the Minnesota series. He had vowed to use it only in desperate situations, such as Friday night, with the Wings down to their last gasp of the year.

Now here he sat, his hair wet, like a little kid waiting for his folks to pick him up after swim practice.

“You’re gonna give up on that jacket now?” he was asked.

He forced a chuckle. “I’ll sell it to you.”

Red light.

Darkness. Rough week for Detroit

Man, what a lousy week for Detroit! First the Pistons. Now the Red Wings. Was it something we said? Did we forget to shower? Detroit sports fans are now forced to watch the 1992 Tigers — which ranks right up there with watching
“Who’s the Boss?” reruns. The worst part is we are all still trying to figure out how the Wings lost this series.

And so are they.

What happened to that offensive machine that used to wear these uniforms? In three of the four games against Chicago, the Wings scored a total of two goals. Two? With the talent they have?

Here they were again, Friday night, this group with more potential offense than the Houston Oilers, and they simply could not find the net. Sometimes they couldn’t even find the puck. Whenever you looked up at the shots-on-goal numbers, it was Chicago 7, Detroit 1, or Chicago 10, Detroit 4.

There were moments when the Wings seemed to be playing as if trapped in a foxhole. They fought back, but they never seemed confident. Sluggish at times, off balance at times, they appeared to be waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even a string of power-play opportunities did nothing to put zip in their skating. It was as if with every failed opportunity they came back saying
“Geez, it’s getting worse. It’s getting worse!”

It did. They managed to equal the shots on goal. Even take an advantage. But they kept hitting Ed Belfour’s pads, or his stick, or a Chicago defender’s sprawling body. It was that kind of series. A series in which the Wings’ best players put in a lot of time on the power play, and, getting nothing there, perhaps were a bit worn out for the regular play. A series in which Chicago’s lesser lights shone brightly — guys such as Gilbert, and Dirk Graham and Jocelyn Lemieux.

It was a series where the Hawks seemed always to be falling on top of a Detroit puck, or holding a Red Wing back with a stick, or shadowing him with the body. At times it was like trying to separate two magnets.

“If you could have one moment back from this whole thing, what would it be?” Steve Yzerman was asked.

“The first face-off of Game 1,” he said. “I just want to start the series again.”

Red light.

Darkness. Theorizing and rationalizing

And now, the morning after. There will be theories galore as to why this playoff hit the iceberg and sunk so quickly. One — perhaps the most sensible
— is that the seven-game Minnesota series took so much out of the Wings, they needed to take a breath — only the breath came during Games 1 and 2 against Chicago, two games they lost. By the time the Wings collected themselves, they were in a foreign building, and they dropped a one-goal game in the final five minutes.

That quick. The series was over.

That’s one theory. Others include, 1) the always popular “blame the goaltender” approach; 2) the overused “Bryan Murray and his mediocre playoff history” approach; 3) the frequent “Where are the star players like Yzerman and Fedorov, and why aren’t they scoring more?” theory; and 4) Lee Harvey Oswald.

OK. So I stuck that last one in. What’s the difference? The fact is, what happened here cannot be summed up in any single paragraph, or blamed on any single player. It was a combination of bad plays, bad breaks, funny bounces, individual lapses and — did we all forget? — the opponent playing some pretty good hockey. Give Chicago credit. That physical, dumping, bumping style of hockey may not beat everybody, but it sure neutralized the Red Wings. The Hawks got terrific goaltending and timely scoring. Their whole performance seemed to be summed up by that game-winner by Sutter.

“What was it like watching that red light go on so late in the game?” Jimmy Carson was asked afterward.

“It was like freeze-frame,” he said. “I don’t think anyone out there who hasn’t played with this team, who hasn’t competed and traveled and lived with these guys since Sept. 7, watched us progress, shared our dreams, all the high hopes, and then to be out there and see that goal score and just like that, it’s . . . done.”

Just like that. The shame of this — beyond the obvious — is that the Wings’ wonderful accomplishment in the regular season (98 points) will be obliterated by the bad taste of these playoffs. But maybe that’s how it should be. Maybe hockey teams should stop spending time patting themselves on the back for the regular season, since it means absolutely nothing. The Wings learned some valuable lessons about upping their game in the early rounds of the playoffs — and those lessons, in the end, may be worth far more than the 98 points ever could be.

So the Wings go home now, to their wives and kids and fishing trips and golf games. Their challenge will lie in not destroying all the confidence they built from November to March. The management’s challenge will be to improve the roster without destroying it.

And the fans’ challenge?

To sit through the next five months of baseball and try not to leap out the window.

Good luck.

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