EDMONTON, Alberta — Sometimes it comes down to the last minute. And sometimes the first minute is enough. Before 60 seconds were gone in Thursday’s bloody playoff game between the Red Wings and the Oilers, four players were in the penalty box, all the others wore angry scowls, and Mark Messier had skated the length of the ice, past two Red Wings defenders, and whacked a shot into the Detroit net on his team’s very first try.

The giant had awakened. This was not going to be the Edmonton of Game 1, no matter the outcome. The sleepwalking that had plagued this “best of the best” squad in Tuesday night’s 3-1 defeat was gone, and so was the lethargy that had swallowed the crowd in the Northlands Coliseum. There was noise. There was anger. There was fighting one minute, then the next, then the next.

The giant had awakened.

By the time five minutes had elapsed, goalie Greg Stefan must have felt like the silhouettes policemen use for target practice. Bullets? Whew! He had been fired on constantly, some deadly accurate shots, and enough centering passes to make the score 20-0 had they connected. Meanwhile, the Red Wings were scattering, playing with a sense of desperation that was never seen in Game 1.

Here, in the first period, was the Oilersthat had earned the best record in hockey this season. They went through the Red Wings like a bull through a fence. Even shorthanded they were dominant, Wayne Gretzky dancing across the ice like a waterbug on skates, eluding Detroit players and knocking precious seconds off the clock, and at one point, dishing off on a perfect breakaway for an easy goal by Jari Kurri and a 2-0 lead. Shorthanded? This team in full motion would need to be down three players to really be shorthanded.

“They’re the Oilers tonight,” someone said.

The giant had awakened. New badge of courage But then something strange happened. Here was the perfect time for the Red Wings to cave in, to admit they were overmatched, to figure Game 1 was a lucky break and bow to the superiority of Gretzky, Kurri, Messier and company — just as the media up here had been telling them to do all week — to go home with no more than the sting of words like “Hey, what do you want? It’s the Edmonton Oilers. That’s what’s supposed to happen.”

Instead, the Wings earned a new badge of courage. They came out for the second period fighting, literally and figuratively — Steve Chiasson was banished for 17 minutes worth of penalties for a brawl with Steve Smith — and something surged. The hearts pumped faster, and slowly, gradually, the Red Wings cooled the Edmonton fire until it was under control, then managed to put in a goal of their own, a sneaky one, a rebound by Bob Probert that barely crossed the goal line. Stefan became a brick in the net, and it was 2-1 when the horn blew, and everyone in Detroit exhaled.

Perhaps they knew: right there the Wings had accomplished something that counted, regardless of the outcome. They had played even, maybe better than even, with the best. Remember the second game of the Edmonton-Los Angeles playoff, after the Oilers had been upset in Game 1? What was the score? 13-3?

That was chest-beating by the Oilers, the giant waking up. LA never won another game. But the Red Wings are not the Kings, they are not pretenders, and if there was any doubt about that in the minds of the Oilers, it is gone now.

The game may have been lost, 4-1, but the Wings are coming home with something important. War in the benches In the third period, a shot by Mark Kumpel that would have tied this game at 2-2 hit the post. “It happens,” said Jacques Demers afterward, but he knew that was a turning point. Edmonton followed with a Mark Messier breakaway goal — “we were as scared of him as we are of Gretzky,” Demers admitted — and an open-net goal in the final minute sealed it.

But, OK. If Game 1 was a stray bullet that found a heart, then Game 2 was war, real and ugly. At one point, Esa Tikkanen checked Gilbert Delorme over the boards — over the boards! — and into the Oilers bench, and no penalty was called. No penalty? It could only be warfare.

“They will not run the Red Wings like that in Game 3,” said Demers, “I guarantee you.”

In Game 1, the Wings had the emotional advantage, the lack of rust, and the intense motivation to prove they belonged.

Thursday night, it was the Oilers with more to prove. They did not want to be embarrassed twice in their own building. They came out strong. They came out fast. But they did not step on anybody.

The giant had awakened, and evened the score.

But the Red Wings did not flinch.

This should be a hell of a series.

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