Maybe if he didn’t look so young. Maybe if we added crow’s feet to his eyes, gave him scars, a receding hairline, a prescription for Viagra. Maybe then, people would take Chris Osgood more seriously.

“How about if you looked like Slava Fetisov?” I asked Osgood the other day.

“No thanks,” he said, softly laughing.

Osgood has a face that could put him back in ninth-grade math class. Even the Vandyke beard that he now sports looks more like something he glued on backstage. It can’t harden the soft skin, the unwrinkled brow, the bagless eyes or the boyishly cut blond hair. He looks young. He looks soft.

Don’t let looks fool you.

Osgood is coming into his own with each passing day of these playoffs. He’s not as sweet as he looks. He’s not as passive as he sounds. There’s a good deal of anger churning inside his 25-year-old frame, and more and more, it seeps out in his words.

“Half the people watching me know I’m a good goalie, and half just make stuff up as I go along,” he said the other day. “There’s this false illusion that they paint of me.”

“What’s the illusion?” I asked.

“That I lack toughness. That I’m not experienced enough. Two years ago, I would have sat here and not said anything. But now, I think I’ve played long enough. Why should I sit back and let people say things that aren’t true?

“I’m not being whiny. I’m just standing up for what I believe in.”

And what Osgood believes is this: He is as good as anybody in an NHL net.

And he almost can’t wait to prove it.

Pressure? Hey, Ozzie loves his job

Now, let’s face facts. Goalie, more than any position in hockey, is misunderstood. People see a guy flick away a slap shot, and they say “Great save!” They don’t realize that perhaps it wasn’t all that difficult, since the shot came from straight ahead and the goalie had a clear vision of it. In such a case, swatting away a puck is as natural as a major-leaguer catching a fly ball.

On the other hand, fans might see a softer shot go past the goalie on his right — as he lunges to the left — and they moan, “Boy, he’s lousy.” They might not realize that the goalie was moving in anticipation of a shot, and would have made a great save except, at the last second, a player he couldn’t see got a stick on the shot and re-directed it in the opposite direction. Such a shot might be impossible to stop.

Yet fans complain. So you take goalie criticism with a grain of salt. Osgood, tougher than he looks, refuses to even accept that tossed bone of understanding.

“People say that being a goalie is so hard. They compare it to being a quarterback in football, or a pitcher in baseball. They say that everyone is always over-analyzing you.

“But I don’t think it’s hard. I think it’s a great job. I play for the greatest team in the greatest hockey city. Why wouldn’t I want this job? Why shouldn’t I revel in the pressure?”

Osgood now has two playoff series under his 1998 belt. He outperformed Nikolai Khabibulin, who got hurt early in the Phoenix series, and he outperformed the legendary Grant Fuhr in the St. Louis series. Fuhr had one brilliant game, in Game 5.

Osgood, meanwhile, quietly did what he had to do four times. There were snapshot saves where he stopped opponents point-blank, where he leapt out and smothered a puck, or scooped a blazing shot into his glove like a gull plucking a fish.

But mostly, he won.

Isn’t that what we’re all after?

Bad goals don’t rattle him

I always believed Osgood resented the way he was associated with crying. The Wings had lost a crucial seventh game to San Jose in the 1994 playoffs. Their season was over. And afterward, Osgood, who had a less-than-great game, wept.

So what? Lots of players cry. But somehow, with that boyish face, his tears never dried. Not in his public image. There was always this notion that Osgood might crack again if the whip came down.

That was unfair. Maybe that’s why Osgood snaps a tad quickly at criticism. Maybe that’s why he has such a staunch supporter in Steve Yzerman. The Captain himself is a quiet fellow, and over the years, that has paled his light, kept him from being assumed as a take-charge guy. He knows what it’s like to have sensitivity and shyness be confused with something else. Yzerman always says,
“I have complete confidence in Ozzie” and “Ozzie is great, he’s a really tough-minded goalie.”

These were things that Yzerman always knew about himself — even when others didn’t. For Osgood, the equation is the same. He knows himself. Everyone else is learning.

“If I let in one bad goal, I’m not going to let in another,” he said, rubbing his chin. “People think I spent a lot of time on that (Al) MacInnis goal (a center-ice slap shot that dribbled through him in Game 3). I didn’t harp on that. I only think about the ones I still have to stop.”

He sighed and looked down. If I didn’t know better, I’d say his brow was creased.

“I just want people to tell the truth about me,” he said.

“And what is the truth?” I asked.

“That I’m a good goalie. That I’m as tough-minded as any goalie in the NHL.” He set his jaw. “And that I won’t rattle over anything.”

He is getting wiser. He is getting stronger. He is even getting older. It’s just happening on the inside.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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