For one night, they could let it go. They could allow themselves a flush of satisfaction. The war was not won, but a battle had been claimed, and only the most stoic soldier could come out of Friday night without a smile. So here, at Joe Louis Arena, amidst a shower of octopi, and a deafening chant of
“SIXTY-ONE! SIXTY-ONE!” the Wings heard the countdown of their final regular-season home game, then leapt over the wall and plowed into a happy huddle by the net, a team of history, hoping to become a team of destiny, and even the unflappable Scotty Bowman accepted slapping handshakes from his fellow coaches before heading into the tunnel.

Sixty for themselves, one for the books.

“It was a great minute to be out there, with everyone chanting,” said a smiling Darren McCarty, after the Wings’ triumph, their 61st of the season, that broke the NHL’s single- season victory mark. “It’s something we’ll cherish for tonight, then forget about until a few months from now, when maybe we’ll have something else to cherish.”

Yes, the Red Wings are downplaying the whole thing, acting as if the regular season means nothing, but that is humility without sense. The regular season means plenty: It sets up your postseason, for one thing, and, more importantly, it establishes who you are. Here is who the Red Wings are: a team that can win any game, from any angle, with a quiet electricity that surges like a lightning bolt. Zap. Game starts. Zap. Game tied. Zap. Game ahead.

Zap. Game over.

Sixty-Won and counting.

Wasn’t that the case Friday, against the hated-rival Chicago Blackhawks? On a night that felt like the playoffs, in a town that already is frothing at the mouth just waiting for the postseason, here was a game that had a little of everything and a little from everybody. It had fights, it had a comeback, it had an empty-net goal. It had a ceremony for the most veteran Red Wing, Steve Yzerman, and a crucial goal from one of the newest Red Wings, Igor Larionov. It had Paul Coffey, Mr. Steady As A Rock, showing a burst of emotion with his go-ahead goal, his second of the night, and it had Bob Probert, who was once seen by Detroit’s boozy faithful as irreplaceable, now being booed because he played for the other guys — the team that hasn’t won 61 games.

“Did you say anything to the guys after this win?” someone asked Scotty Bowman.

“Well, the PR guys wanted to take a picture, but the players didn’t want to.”

“They din’t want to?”

“Nah.”

“Don’t you think you’re taking this stoicism thing too far?”

Bowman shrugged. “You can always take a picture.”

Sixty for themselves, one for the books.

Something to talk about

Now, it is only fitting that the Wings all huddled together by the net after the victory. All season long, they have been as much of a team as a great team can be. No single superstar. No egos. No indispensable personality. In this age of “me-my- mine,” they have rallied to the call of “ours” with the sincerity of a Frank Capra movie. They don’t make teams like the Wings anymore. They haven’t made them for years.

And yet here they are, 61 victories into a season with a game left to go. The record they broke belonged to a Montreal dynasty that won four straight Stanley Cups. Detroit, of course, will settle for one, thank you. But that is still to come. Meanwhile, if you can’t give ’em something to hold, give ’em something to talk about.

“It’s just one more game for us,” said forward Bob Errey, repeating the party line in the locker room. But the truth is, there was plenty of backslapping when that final horn sounded. And well there should be. This is some accomplishment.

Yes, there may be some debate over this record. The nitpickers will point out, correctly, that the previous holder, Montreal, won 60 games in an 80-game season — versus today’s 82-game schedule — and the Canadiens actually lost fewer games than Detroit. To which I say: beam you up, Scotty. Go back to your slide rule. You want to play what-if? How do you know that the Canadiens would have won those two extra games? Besides, how do you account for the increased competition, the influx of foreign players, the disruptive influence of free agency? There are many more impediments to building a dynasty these days. What this team has done is amazing, flat out, and you can take your asterisks and put them up your nose.

Something to remember

There is one good reason to hold these two teams up to each other: Scotty Bowman. He was the man in 1977, and he is the man today. Impressive? There is not a single man in the NHL today who was even coaching in 1977 — let alone setting all-time victory marks. The bookends that Bowman has put together are remarkable. The only thing more amazing than this first for the Wings is this second for their coach.

“Is this the best team ever?” I asked Bowman earlier this week.

“Well, the Montreal team was a great team.”

“Yes, but if the Wings win 61 they’ll have won more games.”

“But the Montreal team won the Cup.”

“What if the Wings win the Cup?”

“Well, then.”

“Well, then? They’ll be the best?”

“Yes.”

Hey. He oughta know.

Or maybe he’ll change his mind. He’s like that. For now, savor the picture, fans on their feet, holding up red and white signs that read “61!” and chanting the number, over and over. Wherever you go in sports, from the ice to the diamond to the hardwood, the song is the same: Win. Just win. It matters not how fancy you are, how methodical, how lucky. Win, just win. This is what makes sports so different from the rest of the life. There is no gray area, only black or white, glory or defeat, a party hat or a sombrero to hide your tears.

So let’s not have any downplaying of this accomplishment. It is all that matters in sports. This is a team that has twice this season won nine games in a row, and hasn’t lost two straight since last November. It is a great regular-season team, about to seize its place in the playoffs, and Friday night should be etched in the history books. No, it is not everything, but it sure is something. Something to talk about. Something to write about. And something to remember — the horn, the leap, the octopus shower.

Sixty for themselves, one for the books.

Now. About this Stanley Cup thing . . .

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