There is alone, there is lonesome, and there is the loneliest man in sports. Manny Legace, the Red Wings’ goaltender, went through all three phases Wednesday night — and it took him only two minutes.

First, he was alone. After all, he was making his first playoff start at age 31. He’d gone from “second backup” to “first backup” to “only healthy option.” Eleven years in professional hockey, and finally, the net is yours? You face such moments by yourself, alone, and alone he was, to start the game.

Then came lonesome. This was 16 seconds into the contest, when a big young Predator named Adam Hall — out of Michigan State, of all places — fired the first shot off Legace, who lost track of the puck as it scooted underneath him, and he inadvertently offered the rebound right back to Hall, a marshmallow on a stick. The kid took a second swing. Goal? Sixteen seconds in? People weren’t even in their seats yet!

“It was not,” Legace would say, “the start I was hoping for.”

Lonesome was the word.

Then, less than 90 seconds later, Nashville’s Steve Sullivan was awarded a penalty shot, a free and unencumbered run at the goalie. And suddenly Legace was staring down a one-on-one challenge, the loneliest man in sports.

Make no mistake. That moment was a turning point. “Huge,” coach Dave Lewis would call it. For had Legace succumbed, as many goalies do, had he dropped his lance and surrendered a 2-0 lead, every old ghost in the Joe Louis Arena rafters would be swirling around the Red Wings bench. The already tense Wings would be facing a hangover-sized deja vu, and Lewis would be faced with an important goaltending decision before his nerves even had time to get jangled.

Instead, this is what happened: Legace pounded his gloves together like a prizefighter bouncing out of his corner, and he came up as Sullivan came bearing down. He forced a quick shot that went wide. The crowd exhaled, then fell into a relieved chant of “MAN-NY! MAN-NY!”

And this much was clear: If the Wings were going to blow another playoff opener, it wasn’t going to be because the goaltending fell apart.

Leg up.

“I guess I would rather give one up in the first 16 seconds than in the last 16,” Legace said, after stopping 23 shots and winning Game 1 of this Western Conference quarterfinal by a 3-1 score. “I was hoping for an easy couple of minutes to start it out. But it was like ‘Shot, rebound, goal.’ Welcome to the playoffs.”

No Hasek, no Joseph

Do you realize this was the first time in three seasons that the Wings have won their playoff opener? And even this one wasn’t assured until the final period, when Kris Draper put the first puck past Nashville’s Tomas Vokoun, and then Tomas Holmstrom redirected a second puck past him, and then, the icing on the cake, Robert Lang scored as he fell to his knees, a nifty “here it is, no, here it is, no, there it is behind you” move that shook off any chance of a Nashville comeback.

But while those goals represented the digits on this night, the story of the game was in the Red Wings’ net — and was always going to be. There is really no way to put into perspective the weirdness of Legace starting this game. From a team that began the season with two super-rich goaltenders, Dominik Hasek and Curtis Joseph, the Wings, before the season ended, had become a depleted and desperate club, needing to call up a reserve from the minors just to fill the net.

Legace, the original fill-in man, had said all along that he wasn’t entitled to anything, that Hasek and Joseph had earned every stripe. But as the games added up and his numbers surpassed those of his more famous teammates, perceptions began to change.

“Manny earned this start,” Lewis said just before the game. “We’re going to go with him and hope for the best.”

And after that first goal by Hall, they got it. Legace was as good as he needed to be, and great the handful of times it was demanded. The first period, when the Wings’ defense seemed to still be dressing in the locker room. Legace made strong stops on Martin Erat and Jeremy Stevenson. He held his own in traffic and on breakaways. Mostly, when you’re going with a fresh guy in the playoffs, you just don’t want him to lose it for you.

Legace made sure he didn’t.

“My nerves really didn’t stop until the final horn,” Legace admitted. But when asked about his accomplishment — his first NHL playoff victory in net — he shrugged.

“I haven’t really done anything. We won one game. We have to be ready for Saturday.”

The burden of being No. 1

I have an idea. Instead of the No. 1 seed having to play the No. 8, how about the reward for the best record is you get to play, I don’t know, the 4 seed or the 5? That way, we get rid of this “Cup or bust” attitude pitted against the
“Just happy to be here” attitude. It’s almost a burden for the team with the best record to play the playoff team with the worst. The Red Wings knew all season that a Stanley Cup was a realistic goal. The Predators didn’t even know they’d be IN the playoffs until last Saturday night.

You could feel it all night in the building. After last year’s sweep by Anaheim and the previous year’s 0-2 start against Vancouver, getting started is as much a nightmare for Wings fans as it is for an old car on a cold morning.

The truth is, the Red Wings, a perennially great team with the collective experience of Methuselah, approach the playoffs like parents starting a long road trip, checking the luggage, easing into the car seats, buckling the belts. Meanwhile, their coltish first-round opponents act like kids who just discovered a sprinkler on a summer lawn — hey, let’s jump in and live it up!

Sometimes, as with any long road trip, the kids take control. On Wednesday night, that didn’t happen, because Legace took control instead. It was a terrific moment for a good guy who has waited a long time for a moment like this.

“I’m just here to stop the puck,” he said. “I’m not a savior or anything.”

He paused.

“I was hoping for an easier first couple of minutes.”

He grinned, and we’ve seen that grin before. It is the grin of a survivor. And the grin of a man who knows he should be starting the next game as well. The playoffs, for Wings fans, just got a little less scary, and for Legace, a little less lonely.

Leg up.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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