by | May 4, 1998 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

PHOENIX — Since the days of the Bible, man has come to the desert looking for a sign. Sometimes it’s a burning bush. Sometimes it’s two stone tablets. And sometimes it’s a puck that ricochets into the net off the skate of a turned-backward goalie and shuts the mouths of 16,000 howling fans.

Bye-bye, cacti. A first-round Stanley Cup playoff series that took six games, 12 days, and felt like forever, is finally, thankfully, over. The Red Wings advanced on a hot afternoon when the penalty box was busier than the women’s rest room.

Typical of this series, it was a day of bumps, bruises, the constant howling of the white-clad Phoenix Coyotes fans and an endless stream of penalties, most of them on the Coyotes. Still, the result remained in doubt until late in the second period, when Sergei Fedorov, who had done pretty much everything else this series, decided to try something new: He sent a clearing pass along the boards with just over a minute and a half left.

Now, normally, such plays are as innocuous as TV commercials. They are meant to provide a brief break, catch your breath, shift positions.

But not this time. This one skidded along the foot of the boards, then, inexplicably, ricocheted forward, as if smacking an invisible wall. It hit goalie Jimmy Waite in the back of his left skate and traveled innocently into the net for a 4-2 Wings lead.

Waite, facing the other way, had no idea what happened. He was standing up when the puck struck. As the crowd moaned, he sprawled into a butterfly, more out of instinct than anything. Too late. The puck was as home as a bird in the nest.

And the Red Wings could start the engines on the team plane.

Bye bye, cacti.

“Most of the time, I wouldn’t want to score like that in a playoff game,” Fedorov said after the Wings won, 5-2, and put away the Coyotes in Game 6, to advance to the second round of the playoffs. “It really isn’t fair to the opponent.”

Then again, he’s not going to give it back.

And, to be fair to the Wings, they already had the lead and added another goal in the third period. They probably would have won anyhow.

But clearly, Fedorov’s little miracle broke the spirit of the Coyotes. From that point, they played like a team bent on trying, not winning. And when the final horn sounded, the Wings took their bumps, bruises and benevolent bounces and headed home happy.

“Sergei’s goal,” said a tired but smiling Brendan Shanahan, “was a nice break.”

Right. And “Exodus” was a nice book.

Bye bye, cacti.

A survival test

“As defending Stanley Cup champions,” someone asked Steve Yzerman after the game, “is winning the first round a sense of relief?”

“In a way,” he said. “But the last few years, it’s always been an upset if we lose in the first round.”

Which is what makes what the Wings did here significant. This was more than defeating a .500 team. It was surviving the land mines of the first round, which have already captured last year’s Stanley Cup runner-up, Philadelphia, and this year’s Eastern Conference champion, New Jersey. Let’s face it. First-round series are a leafy net over a deep hole, a banana peel in a dark room. The art is surviving them. The bonus is surviving them intact.

And despite the physical blows of this series, the Wings actually gained players as it went along, with Shanahan, Kris Draper, Brent Gilchrist and Martin Lapointe all returning from injuries.

“I think what’s happening is at the end of the regular season, the six, seven and eight seeds are all in a dogfight to make the playoffs, while the top teams are kind of coasting in,” Yzerman said. “Then, when the playoffs start, those lower-seeded teams already have been working hard, and they get a jump.”

Which might explain how Buffalo and Ottawa have made the second round, and how Edmonton has pushed Colorado to a Game 7.

It also makes what Detroit did here that much more impressive against a gritty Phoenix squad. Yes, the Wings had hiccups in Games 2 and 3. But when the series had to be shut down, they shut it down. On Sunday, they scored on almost half of their power-play chances (four out of nine) and the big guns — Shanahan, Yzerman, Fedorov — did most of the scoring and assisting.

It was also fitting that the nail in the coffin came from Fedorov’s stick. You can’t say enough about how he played in this series. His six goals were more than twice the total of his next closest teammate. And even when other guys scored, he seemed to have done something — an assist, a setup, a steal, a deceptive spin — that lit the wick for the explosion.

“Sergei can play anywhere,” Scotty Bowman said.

And to think, he almost played somewhere else.

Don’t mess with Motown

Now, a personal note. As regular readers of this column know, in last Sunday’s Game 3, the people who run the America West Arena played Motown music over the loudspeaker — the Four Tops, to be exact — and the fans booed. They thought it was cool.

In a subsequent column, I pointed out that booing Motown music is actually a tad rude, not to mention stupid, ignorant, insulting and typical of the cultural wasteland that forms when your town’s biggest product is sunblock.

Anyhow, after pointing out, quite rightly, that anyone who boos Motown music doesn’t deserve to live, much less win a hockey series, I also noted that the Wings had not lost since that fateful insult, and they would not lose again. It was a matter of pride.

And even though I was proven correct in Game 4 and again in Game 5, the scorpion folk out here in the dunes made sure that, Sunday, in the first period, they repeated their folly.

“It has come to our attention that certain members of the media were upset with our treatment of Motown music,” the PA man loudly bellowed. “Therefore we apologize . . .”

He paused for effect.

“WE APOLOGIZE to the COYOTES FANS, THE GREATEST FANS ON EARTH, for ever subjecting them to Motown music in the first place! And we promise to NEVER PLAY IT AGAIN!”

And the crowd cheered.

And 18 seconds later, Steve Yzerman scored.

Some arenas never learn.

Bye-bye, cacti. So long, sand people. The Red Wings wait to learn where the playoff road leads next — the mountains of Colorado or the riverboats of St. Louis — and meanwhile, you can boo Motown music all summer, as you slowly roast into oblivion.

In fact, here’s an idea: Use the Four Tops as a soundtrack when you watch the replays of Fedorov’s puck clinking off your goalie’s skate.

The point is, order has been restored. A lesson has been learned. And not being one to gloat, I’m only going to say this once:

Some Detroit things should not be trifled with.

Not our hockey. Not our music.

By the way, you can take those white shirts off now. They’re starting to smell.

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


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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