Of all the players to be goal-less in the playoffs, he seemed the least likely. Faster than just about anyone he faced, blessed with the moves of an NBA point guard, got an MVP award in his closet, a Nike commercial in his personal film file — you would think Sergei Fedorov would have put one puck in the net in six games against the Winnipeg Jets.

He did not. That whole series passed, and the Wings’ leading scorer did not have a notch in his belt. Well. So be it. Here came Friday night, the second round, against St. Louis; a new series, a new shot. But early on it seemed like the same old pattern. In the first period alone, Fedorov had five shots at Blues goalie Jon Casey and was turned back all five times. Once, when he slapped the puck so hard it flipped up into the air, and Casey went down, and it looked like this was it, the drought was over — whoops, Charlie Huddy, a defenseman, swatted the shot away with his glove, like some kind of handball player.

Dry again.

But Fedorov, like the Red Wings team he plays for, has learned the meaning of patience, maybe more this past year than any before it. And so, on a night when the Wings seemed as out of sync as a Beta tape in a VHS machine, they kept coming, and he kept coming. Despite a slash to his ribs by Chris Pronger
— what a perfect name, huh? — and despite a collision with Paul Coffey that left him sprawled on the ice. He kept coming, and he figured the chances would as well.

So here is the lesson for all those impatient goal scorers out there: Good things come to those who . . . break away. Fedorov finally got the perfect chance in the closing minutes, when Coffey knocked a sweet pass to Slava Kozlov, who streaked down the ice, then pulled up, drawing the defender in — and who should be coming down center ice like a jet.

Mr. Goal-less himself.

He took Kozlov’s pass, went left on Casey and shot it past him the way they draw it up in pee-wee hockey. Game-winner. Drought-breaker. Red light on.

In the black.

“I’m glad Sergei got that,” said relieved coach Scotty Bowman after the Wings’ 3-2 victory. “This game could have gone either way. And he might have been pretty disappointed, given that he got hurt.”

Of course, if you listened to Blues coach Mike Keenan, there was no hurt involved. “That’s a disgrace,” Keenan said of Fedorov, referring to what he called his “flopping.”

Then again, if we all paid attention to Mike Keenan’s press conferences, the world would be a pretty screwy place. More than one hero

Besides, by the time Fedorov got to be a hero, the Wings already had one: goalie Chris Osgood. Make no mistake. Fedorov’s goal was the game-winner, but only because Osgood kept it a game. He not only stopped 31 of 33 shots, he did it with flair. He was leaping, stretching, flopping, spinning, poking them away with his stick, kicking them out with his pads, taking them off the chest, off the glove, off the blocker, you name it.

In one remarkable stretch, he stopped six straight power- play shots before Shayne Corson put one underneath him from close range.

“I had fun on a night like this,” Osgood said. “I like to face a lot of shots.”

“What were you thinking,” someone asked, “when Wayne Gretzky came down all alone on a breakaway and it was just you and him.”

“I don’t think,” Osgood said. “I’ve told you guys before. Goalies don’t think.”

Well, if that’s the case, this was one of the most brilliant mindless performances of the playoffs.

Here was a night where Detroit was outshot — the first time in six weeks that has happened. If rust accumulates on a hockey team, then the Wings needed a good scrape Friday night. Their power play was a brownout. In the third period, they had several opportunities and could not even register a shot. In one particularly frustrating moment, Coffey lost control of the puck and Nicklas Lidstrom looked as if he were skating in mud, and a two-man advantage resulted in zip.

But championship teams believe in their inner virtuoso performances, even when their outside looks like a lounge lizard. So the Wings kept skating, kept breaking up the Blues’ best chances, and finally, thanks to grinders like Darren McCarty (who scored his first playoff goal as well) and the continued excellence of Osgood, they prevailed.

Hey, no one said it would be pretty. Dino: ‘We have to play better’

And it wasn’t. The Wings took too many penalties. They made too many soft passes. They were in the wrong place too many times.

“We were out of sync,” admitted forward Dino Ciccarelli, who scored a goal but also spent a good deal of time in the penalty box. “It’s not an excuse. We have to play better.”

That is true. I believe they will. Remember that a night like Friday does not happen in the regular season. You never play one team six straight times, then get five days off, then start against another team. “I told them before the game, we have to crank it up all over again,” Bowman said.

Message delivered.

Not pretty. Not a classic. In fact, Game 1 may be noteworthy only for two mini-stories: One star finally turned the red light on, and the other kept it off when he had to.

Game won. And this was on a bad night. If I were St. Louis, I’d be worrying.

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