Patience, please. There will be nights in the playoffs when the Red Wings will own the ice, and nights when their opponent will stake it for its own. The nights in between, when the game is a flipping coin, those are the ones you have to grab. Those are the ones that add up to a championship.
It was that kind of night Wednesday in the playoff opener at Joe Louis Arena. The Wings, with the best record in hockey, were hardly better than the Vancouver Canucks, the eighth seed. Both clubs had their moments on the power play. Both had moments killing penalties. Both got lucky bounces.
But the coin was flipping, it flipped all the way into overtime, and when that happens, you don’t wait for heads or tails. You grab it, and tell the other guy “You lose.”
Vancouver did, on a classically overtime shot by Henrik Sedin. It went past Jiri Fischer, seemed to bang off Igor Larionov, and flew past Dominik Hasek’s shoulder, into the net.
And suddenly, for Detroit, this highly touted postseason begins with climbing out of a hole.
“We had some decent chances in overtime,” said coach Scotty Bowman, after the 4-3 defeat, which leaves the Wings still winless in the month of April. “We shot high, we shot wide . . .
“Pavel (Datsyuk) had the best chance, but he went to his backhand and had it knocked away . . . oh, but (Jason) Williams had a good chance, also Brett Hull had one and (Tomas) Holmstrom, he had a good chance . . .”
You see? Plenty of chances. And that was the problem. In the playoffs, you don’t add up your chances; you add up your conversions.
So for all the swings the Wings took at Vancouver goalie Dan Cloutier, the shot that mattered was Sedin’s. He held the puck on his stick. He held it. He held it. He waited for Fischer, who was in front of him, to commit to a posture, and he waited for more traffic to form in front of Hasek . . .
And then he let it go. The shot was hard.
But the waiting made it go in.
An underdog’s confidence
“I’m not surprised, I’m happy,” said Marc Crawford, the Canucks coach (yes that Marc Crawford, who used to coach Colorado and doesn’t appear to have lost a single hair off his head). “That was a huge, huge step for our team, to win a game this big, in a building like this, against a team like them.”
You see by his words how this series is pitched. The Wings have all the baggage. The Canucks are traveling light. The Wings are balancing expectations, payroll, spotlight and the weight of a useless final few weeks of the season. The Canucks are red hot, unburdened by expectations, and most likely enjoying the heck out of this morning’s “SportsCenter” highlights as you read this.
But the Wings know the deal. “If we learned anything from last year in the first-round loss (to L.A.),” Darren McCarty told me earlier this week, “it’s to finish a team off when you get the chance. Don’t let them hang around.”
Detroit forgot that Wednesday night. It had a golden opportunity in the second period, after drawing a five-on-three advantage from a high-sticking penalty.
For more than minute the Wings would have two extra men, at home, with the crowd roaring and all those big-name sharpshooters available. A veteran team has to close that deal. It has to make the young visiting team feel the consequences of a mistake.
Instead, the Wings once again had many chances — lots of “ooohs” and “aaahs” as the puck just missed — but the red light never came on.
And when the sides were even again, it was a little bit different Vancouver team.
“The biggest play of the game,” Crawford said, “when we fended them of. That was the turning point.”
It took time.
A mixed performance
“Three times we were up and three times we let them come back,” Hasek said of the Wings’ 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 leads. “Their last goal was just bad luck.”
Bad luck or bad karma, but the Wings once again must overcome a deficit when a lead was expected. This is doable. It is a pain, nonetheless. What the Wings were hoping to do was establish a playoff rhythm, get into a groove, start rolling. Even if you are the better team, and still likely to win, it is hard to establish rhythm when you keep having to stop and tie your shoes.
Does rust never sleep? Hard to say. The Wings, who haven’t had to win a game since March, looked sharp at times Wednesday night, but then again, it was a high-octane game with a lot of up and down. A team can look falsely good or bad in such affairs. At times, the Wings looked crisp — especially on some penalty kills — and at times, the defense seemed less than smothering.
Hasek was not at his best. But he was also not alone.
Remember this: Vancouver is not some pushover team. The Canucks, who won 42 games and lost just 30, had five fewer points all season than the dreaded Colorado Avalanche. For that, they got an eighth seed. But seeds are for gardens. The Canucks had momentum, and a fire-hot first line made up of fast, young goal scorers.
They now have a lead.
“What do we have to do?” Bowman said, repeating a question. “We have to think about the next one, that’s all. We can’t spend any time thinking about this one.”
Not the start they wanted. Not the end of the world. To paraphrase Susan Sarandon in “Bull Durham,” it’s a long postseason, and you have to trust it.
Do you have a choice?
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).