The game was in the final minute, the Colorado goalie was pulled, and finally, finally, there really was nothing standing between the team and the dream. Brendan Shanahan raced to the loose puck, took good healthy aim and put that baby in the open basket, unleashing a flood of noise that could be heard all the way to the Rocky Mountains.

Guess who’s coming for Stanley — again? From a warm summer Saturday, two years ago, deep in the swamps of New Jersey, the Red Wings have been waiting to get back to this night. Waiting for a chance to redeem their squandered potential, to correct the road they mistakenly turned off when last they journeyed to the NHL finals. It has been a difficult climb, and there have been slips and scratches and crew members lost and one disaster last spring, when the team fell all the way back to the bottom.

But here they come again. See those players out there, leaping into a happy huddle by the net? They just knocked the Holy Grail loose. Four more victories, and they take it home.

Got the bowl. Want the Cup.

“This team has so much character,” said a sweaty but happy Mike Vernon, the goaltending hero of this series, after the Wings dethroned the defending champion Colorado Avalanche with a 3-1 victory that sealed the Western Conference finals, four games to two. “Now we’re going to the big one.”

Well. One big one at a time. Monday night was already a Game 7 disguised as Game 6. The Wings dared not blink. They did not blink. They dared not tire. They never tired. They dared not lose. And so they did not lose.

Instead they won with a relentless attack, and the intensity of a man trying to save his children. They never stopped shooting. They never stopped crashing. When the game ended they had 42 shots on goal, Colorado had 16. It was like a battleship against a rowboat.

“I told the team that they would rue the day if they didn’t show up and play the game of their lives,” coach Scotty Bowman said after the victory.
“You always want to remember the game that put you into the Stanley Cup finals, not the one that you didn’t win to get there.”

Right. The Wings had way too much of that last year. So Monday, Memorial Day, marked the death of bad memories, and all the redemption you could squeeze into one thumping, bumping, crazy-loud hockey rink. Bye-bye, Claude Lemieux. Au revoir, Patrick Roy. See you, Joe Sakic, whom the Wings held without a shot Monday night.

Let’s face it. Colorado was the team the Wings wanted to beat, the team the Wings needed to beat to heal their own wounds. The Avs snuffed the Wings last year, left them bleeding and humbled, left Kris Draper in the hospital. The hunger for revenge has been simmering all season, like a giant poison stew.

Finally, that odor is gone. It began to waft in the second period, when Martin Lapointe squared and fired a slap shot at Roy. The goalie tried to catch it, then sank in disbelief when it went off his glove and trickled into the net. The supposedly unbeatable Roy — who had never lost a conference finals series — stared at his glove, checked it both ways, as if there were a hole in it.

There was no hole.

Not in the glove, anyhow.

But the invincibility of Colorado was shot. The Avs were on their heels, about to lose their first playoff series since coming to the Rockies. The deciding nail came one period later, when Sergei Fedorov slapped one shot at Roy, then took his own rebound and poked it through. This is the same Sergei Fedorov who missed most of the first two periods because he couldn’t breathe after slamming himself into an opponent for a check. Sergei Fedorov? Checking? Yes. And here he was, out there when it counted, putting in his own rebound. If at first you don’t succeed . . .

Which, come to think of it, is pretty much the motto for this series, right? The Wings lost last year to the Avalanche. They lost the majority of games to the Avs in this regular season. But they wanted it more in the playoffs. It was that simple.

And because of that, there will be hockey in June, right here, in Detroit city.

Got the bowl. Want the Cup.

A bitter end for some

“How does it feel to beat these guys?” forward Doug Brown was asked.
“Losing last year was so bitter.”

“This is exactly the opposite of bitter,” he said, grinning. “You find the adjective.”

OK. How about sweet, delicious, satisfying, cleansing, enthralling, engrossing, complete?

Any of those work?

Yes, it’s true, Draper did not shake Lemieux’s hand at the end. And, yes, Lemieux did not shake Darren McCarty’s hand, either. Their shared bitterness will remain, perhaps forever.

But it doesn’t taint this Detroit victory. For no one can say the Wings did it by fluke, by lucky bounce or injuries. Detroit was the better team in four of the six games, some might even say five of the six. It wasn’t just the big moments — the spectacular goals, the nerve-jangling saves — it was all the moments between the big moments that won this thing.

It was every hard check, and every two-man sandwich on a speedy Colorado player. It was every puck stolen before the Avalanche could mount an attack, and every peppering attack on Roy that may not have yielded a point, but made him work, made him think, tired him out.

It was every fight the Wings skated away from. It was all the rushes that went unrewarded with goals, but kept the flow of the game decidedly red, red, red.

It was Vernon making the little saves, not just the big ones. It was Bowman making the right line changes. It was the endless trade imbalance on the shots-on-goal board.

And, of course, it was heroics, too. Like Steve Yzerman going coast-to-coast in Game 2, like Slava Kozlov doing all the scoring in Game 3, like Igor Larionov with two fast goals in Game 4, like Fedorov injuring himself, then coming off the bench to score the killer Monday night.

It was Shanahan, still sporting the scar from the Game 4 fights, firing like a madman all night long, finally getting pay dirt on the last goal of the series.

“I knew from the moment I came here they kind of got me for this series,” said Shanahan, who seemed almost dazed with the emotion of going to his first Stanley Cup finals. “Last year at this time, I had no idea I would be here. All I can say is thanks to this organization.

“And we’re not finished yet.”

Bring on the Flyers

No, they’re not. Now they head for Philadelphia, another hockey town where they have waited a long time for a Stanley Cup. No novice fans in Philly. And no speedy finesse team waiting there, either. The Flyers are big and tough and have the league’s most eagerly awaited superstar, Eric Lindros, looking to scratch his name into the side of the Cup. And, of course, there’s Paul Coffey, whose departure — in the trade for Shanahan — may have been the turning point in this Detroit season.

It will be an oddly similar feeling to the last Stanley Cup finals trip: an East Coast team, tough and physical. But this time, the Wings are not coming in exhausted. This time they are not just happy to be there. This time they are not starting at home, they are not necessarily the favored team . .
.

But wait. Why rush the story? The Wings have five days to prepare for that, and they might take the odd moment to reflect on what they’ve done to this point. I’m not suggesting they gloat; they have no reason to gloat.

No. Better for them to concentrate on what they don’t feel this morning. They don’t feel like the team that got sent home too early. They don’t feel like they lost something that was rightfully theirs. They don’t feel like having to make vacation plans when the vacation plans are the last thing they want to make. They don’t feel like hiding indoors, and avoiding the TV set, because it will hurt too much to watch some other team playing for a Cup they believed was coming to them.

It feels good to be rid of all that anger, frustration, jealousy, regret, bad memories, visions of Sakic shooting and Roy pumping his stick and Lemieux laughing at his destruction — it feels good to be rid of all that, doesn’t it?

Well, the best way to avoid a return of those emotions is simple: Win four of the next seven games.

Did you notice how quickly Yzerman, the captain, accepted the Campbell Bowl on Monday night, and skated off with it. Two years ago, he held it over his head, and enjoyed the fans’ celebration, only to feel despair four games later when the Wings were swept. Looking back, he felt bad about that, as if he and his team had somehow celebrated prematurely.

“I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it,” he said this time.

OK. No big deal. The Wings have simply reached a plateau on this mountain climb, a place to take out the canteens, swig a few sips, glance around at the view, and then pack up and keep ascending. They are now back to the base camp of their dreams. The Holy Grail lies just over yonder hill.

Got the bowl. Want the Cup.

Have fun storming the castle, boys.

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