ANAHEIM, Calif. — And that’s that.
No repeat title. No championship parade. No Colorado or Dallas. No May. No June. No anything, really — which is what happens when you suffer the biggest no of all: no wins.
Four times the Red Wings took their pride and power onto the ice against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, a team with a laughable name and a nonexistent tradition, and four times they skated off humbled. Wednesday night was the final indignity, a night when the Wings vowed they would show what they were about.
Here’s what they’re about: They’re about home now, done for the year, the first team eliminated from this year’s playoffs. The team got dressed. The plane took off.
And that’s that.
“Four straight?” you could hear Wings fans whispering, after Detroit was swept away with a 3-2 overtime defeat in Game 4. “It’s a joke, right? It can’t really have happened? Four straight?”
It happened. Here was Mathieu Dandenault, asleep at the wheel, allowing Adam Oates to steal the puck like a purse snatcher on the subway. Oates passed to Paul Kariya, Kariya went high on Curtis Joseph, and the Wings’ only lead of the game was gone.
Here were Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Sergei Fedorov, the biggest guns in the Detroit arsenal, firing into Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastien Giguere as if he were made of Kevlar. Nothing but scratches.
Here was the third period, with a whizzing shot from a fourth-line guy named Jason Krog getting past the now-beleaguered Joseph.
“Jason Krog?” you could hear the fans say. “JASON KROG?!”
And finally, in overtime, here was Steve Rucchin firing the inevitable dagger past Joseph and into the history books.
“SWEEP! SWEEP!” yelled the Anaheim crowd.
Swept. Days from now, months from now — maybe even years from now — these moments will come back to the Red Wings, haunting them with the worst kind of echoes. The clanged posts, the missed defensive moves, the goalie straying from the net — all those false little stitches in the fabric, coming unraveled in one gnawing realization: You only get so many chances at a Stanley Cup.
And in 2003, a beautifully equipped machine never got out of the garage.
The long road back
Even up to game time, the Wings were talking about making history. They knew only two teams had come back from a 3-0 deficit in the NHL playoffs, but to a man they felt they were destined to make it three.
“If any team can do it . . .” coach Dave Lewis said.
“If any team can do it . . .” Shanahan said.
“If any team can do it . . .” Fedorov said.
Maybe no team can do it, then. But remember, the Wings didn’t just fail at coming back from a 3-0 deficit. They failed to win a game. You can spin that all you want. It still spells failure. On Wednesday night, they reached the pinnacle of frustration late in the second period, when even their best hockey could not yield a goal. Honestly, it was like watching a one-way scrimmage, so dominant were the Wings on offense. But watching them tying to crack Giguere was like watching thieves try to crack a Swiss bank vault. They threw everything at him. Darren McCarty with two hard shots — denied! Shanahan on a pretty feed from Steve Yzerman — denied! Yzerman making his own opening, spinning, firing — denied! Fedorov with two screaming shots — nothing! It was like chopping at a redwood tree.
At one point, a deflected shot by Mathieu Schneider flipped up in the air like a tossed coin, landed on Giguere’s back, and still bounced off to the side of the net. That was pretty much the story for the Wings. Even gravity was on Anaheim’s side.
By the end, as they skated off for the summer, the Wings appeared stunned. A team that, in the last part of the regular season, averaged four goals a game, could only manage six in a series?
“It’s unthinkable,” you could hear the Detroit fans say. “Isn’t it?”
Not anymore. For the last week, the Red Wings were like an ogre taking punches from a leprechaun, saying, “That didn’t hurt” and “That didn’t hurt” — and then toppling over dead. To the bitter end, they were in denial about Anaheim’s team talents, privately crediting only the goaltender, Giguere, as the reason they were down, 3-0, instead of the opposite.
Yes, it’s true, Giguere was unbelievable. Remarkable. Can’t say enough. But he didn’t score for the Ducks. He didn’t fall asleep on defense. He didn’t give up the questionable goals that Joseph did. He didn’t steal the pucks or make the perfect passes the Ducks did at least once a game.
And if Giguere was the only reason they lost, that may say more about the Wings than we want to know. Remember, Giguere was in his first career playoff. His coach, Mike Babcock, is a first-year guy. Krog is considered a back-of-the-pack player — and he had two goals in this series — which is two more than Hull, Fedorov, Yzerman or Nicklas Lidstrom. The Ducks had never beaten the Wings in the playoffs before. How much history could the Wings trash in one series?
A lot. It’s been more than half a century since a defending Stanley Cup champion was swept out in the first round. For better or worse, the Wings are back in the books.
A summer without hockey
The repercussions of this are staggering. This Detroit hockey machine is based on heavy income and heavy outcome, with the playoff kitty financing much of the pre- and in-season maneuvers. The Ilitch family’s devotion to high-priced talent — both current and potential — will be severely tested now. This is an age-heavy team, with older players sucking a huge amount of the payroll. You can’t trade them. If you cut them, you lose their leadership. If you lose their leadership, aren’t you just like a lot of teams out there?
You see the problem. And the red ink doesn’t compare to the black eye on the Red Wings’ pride. Losing a tough first-round series is not unprecedented — the Wings did it two years ago to the Los Angeles Kings. But losing four straight to a No. 7 seed when you have a Hall of Fame roster and a gaggle of young talent is not only historic, it’s inexplicable.
That riddle will now consume our spring and summer hours, previously set aside for hockey. Instead of going indoors in early May, you can mow the lawn and say, “I can’t believe the Wings lost like that.” Instead of finding a sports bar in early June, you can hit the beach and say, “I still can’t believe the Wings lost that way.”
And while you’re doing that, you can most likely say good-bye to familiar faces: Luc Robitaille, Igor Larionov, maybe even Fedorov and McCarty, all free agents who seem less essential after a goose egg in the playoffs.
But mostly what we say good-bye to is anticipation, adulation and exultation. They are replaced by frustration now, ours and theirs. For 18 months, Detroit has been a happy place for hockey, a sort of magic Puckville in which the best players played and the best fans watched.
All gone now. The best laid plans of mice and men just got hammered by Ducks. The team got dressed. The plane took off. There is no joy in Puckville; the mighty Red Wings have struck out.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).