TAKEN BY STORMONCE AGAIN, WINGS DON’T MAKE LIFE EASY

As the minutes ticked away, and the score remained tied, and the shots stayed even, and the crowd went from breezily confident to noticeably nervous, the voice that rose from the floor-level seats to the steel blue rafters at Joe Louis Arena seemed to echo with a sad but growing resignation:

“OK, so maybe these guys CAN play.”

Not only can they play. They can win. Fifty-eight seconds into an overtime Tuesday night that felt almost fated to end badly for Detroit, it did, when Ron Francis, the veteran captain of the Carolina Hurricanes — whoever they are — poked in a beautiful pass from Jeff O’Neill, and the Red Wings did what you never want to do to a team that may be wondering how it got into the series.

Made them feel at home.

Doing it the hard way. Again. The Wings may be the best roster ever, but they’re not the most efficient. They fell behind to Vancouver in the first round, Colorado in the third, and now, against a team they had every reason to dominate, they fall behind in the Stanley Cup finals with a 3-2, Game 1 loss. On a night when the buildup exceeded the punch, when the crowd seemed eerily quiet and drained of enthusiasm, when the ice seemed sloppy and players fell for no reason, Carolina, the team nobody picked, pulled alongside the Red Wings, the team everybody picked, and finally, as if mocking them through the driver’s side window, said, “Aw, you ain’t so tough.”

And pushed the pedal to the floor.

The Wings are left coughing on their dust.

“We didn’t play as well as we wanted, that’s for sure,” coach Scotty Bowman said after this one was over. “We had a lot of turnovers, a lot of bad passes, we had a chance to win at the end with a power play and we didn’t do it.

“We were off-kilter, definitely, especially at the beginning.”

Which, by the way, is exactly when the heavily favored team wants to be dominant.

The hard way. Again.

The blown leads

“Am I shocked? No I’m not shocked,” captain Steve Yzerman said in the locker room. “We would have liked to have started the series with a win. But they are aggressive and disciplined and it’s not like we didn’t know that.”

Funny. Didn’t the captain make similar statements in the Vancouver series? And the Colorado series? The good news is, those both turned out OK. And one suspects, in the end, this one will, too.

But, man, it drives you crazy, doesn’t it? Whenever you think this team can just make it easy, the Wings find a way to make it hard. On Tuesday night they had a 1-0 lead, gave it back, had a 2-1 lead, gave it back, had a power play at the end of regulation, and didn’t capitalize, then faltered less than a minute into overtime, their fourth overtime loss in five tries this postseason.

Meanwhile, you want to know what’s really disturbing? Carolina didn’t seem all that thrilled.

“Is this a childhood dream, an overtime goal in the playoffs?” a reporter breathlessly asked Francis.

“Well, we’ve been in a lot of overtimes,” he said, with all the excitement of an office dictation. “I was just happy to get one for my team.”

Hmm. That’s not what a gang of neophytes are supposed to say. They’re supposed to be dancing and cheering and overreacting.

Instead, Carolina has the look and feel of a team that cannot be surprised — least of all by its own success.

“Did you say anything to your old teammates?” someone asked Aaron Ward, the Wing turned Hurricane, who had a fine assist on Carolina’s second goal.

“I didn’t say a word. The last thing we want to do is make this team mad.”

Well, if they won’t make the Wings mad, the Wings had better do it themselves.

Get mad. Get even.

Or the hard way gets even harder.

The other owner

Now, as the night went on, this much became certain. The Smoky Mountains are not the Rocky Mountains, whiskey is not Coors Lite, NASCAR is not a snowmobile, and Carolina is not Colorado. You can’t say it any simpler than that. The visiting team Tuesday night in the Stanley Cup finals was a shell of the one that has been plowing and pushing the Red Wings over the past two weeks, and if you say you didn’t notice, you’re lying. There is no one on Carolina resembling Peter Forsberg. No one casting a shadow like Patrick Roy. There was no prevalent feeling of doom, just around the corner, the sense that any slip on the ice might cost you your playoff life.

And that, it turns out, was part of the problem. Where was the sense of urgency? The Wings kept saying they wouldn’t take the Hurricanes lightly and they were smarter than the analysts for saying that.

But they have to mean it, too. That was not Detroit’s finest effort Tuesday night. And you wonder why they need to keep having their back poked against a wall before that comes out.

Ah, well. Maybe they’re just making it interesting. Playoff series, you should know by now, must unfold like a novel. You can’t tell the ending from the first few chapters. We did have a wonderful subplot in the luxury suites. Here was Mike Ilitch, the Wings’ owner, in one box, wearing a red jacket and biting his lip, dying inside, hoping the Wings would win, and not far away was Peter Karmanos Jr., the Detroit native who owns the Hurricanes, and who has season tickets to the Wings, sitting in another suite, grabbing his cheeks, breathing hard, pulling for the upset.

They were both in their hometown.

But only one went home happy.

“Hey, there’s no pressure on us and all of it on them,” Karmanos said before the game. “What better position could we be in?”

Uh, the one they’re in now?

Hang on to your heartbeats, Red Wings fans. You’ve been through it before. It’s not new. It’s not fun. It’s the hard way. Again.

By the way, I guess this means there’ll be a Game 5, huh?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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