THE CZECH rookie had been having a pretty lousy time in Detroit. Fifteen seconds into Tuesday’s Game 3, he was slammed into the wall by Detroit’s Kris Draper and went flipping over, landing in the laps of his teammates. How embarrassing.

Then, early Thursday night, he was upended by Draper once more, landing on his back like a kid who falls out of the top bunk.

But Milan Hejduk, who not too long ago didn’t know English, did know one truism that has been momentarily misplaced by the Red Wings. You keep pushing until it’s over. Because you never know. So here was the young Czech, later in the game, moving on a power play, digging after the puck and shoving it through the sadly open legs of Bill Ranford for a 3-0 Colorado lead.

And next thing you knew, Ranford, the early hero of this series, was skating off, done for the night, as was his team. And Hejduk, the kid, didn’t remember being flipped anymore.

What? You were expecting a coronation? You were expecting someone would put a crown on the Red Wings’ heads, place the Stanley Cup in their arms and say,
“Don’t even bother playing, we know you’re the best team out there.” Doesn’t work that way. Maybe only one team is capable of winning it all, but everybody wants to.

“It was probably better that we got spanked tonight than thinking we lost a close one,” said forward Brendan Shanahan, after the Game 4 slaughter, 6-2, which knotted this Western Conference semifinal series at two games apiece,
“because this wasn’t close. It was embarrassing.”

Sad but true. Colorado came, saw, and took scalps. In two games, the Avalanche stomped on the Wings like a kid jumping on a beach towel.

Then again, these are the playoffs, folks. The Wings have never cruised through them, despite ending up with the Stanley Cup the last two years. There are always moments in these postseason marathons when you find out what you’re made of. The Wings had to go six games two years ago against St. Louis and Colorado, and did the same last year with Phoenix, St. Louis and Dallas.

This does not make where they stand now any less serious.

Only less new.

“This has happened many, many times before,” cautioned coach Scotty Bowman, who still looked pretty dejected sitting at an interview table. “You often see, after the first four games, the teams are tied. And then you see one team kind of come on strong.”

There were few signs Thursday night that the Wings would be that team. They were outsmarted and outhustled. By the end of the second period, Joe Louis Arena looked more like the Palace, empty seats everywhere. Fans were actually booing.

Booing?

The tale of St. Patrick

So what went wrong? What didn’t? The Wings came out hitting bodies but missing shots. They never seemed to find an offensive rhythm — if you ask me, they miss Igor Larionov a lot more than anyone will admit — and their passing went from unproductive to ineffective to sloppy. Soon their “attack” was more like a clumsy jog. Their defense was consistently a step out of place, too, bunched up at certain times, allowing holes to open for clear shots on Ranford. And when the puck came off their goalie, the Wings swiped at it with sticks while Avalanche players came roaring in like buffalo.

Colorado, meanwhile, did a great job of bottling up on its end. You can do this with a three-goal lead. The Avs made the Wings’ power play look sadly in need of a blood transfusion. In fact, for the first 8 1/2 minutes of the second period, they held the Wings to no shots.

“We didn’t have any jump tonight,” Ranford said.

And then there was Patrick Roy. He was impenetrable when it counted. Forget the two goals he allowed late in the game. By that point, he was probably wondering whether there’d be a movie on the flight home. You know Roy is playing well when he stops 31 shots and barely seems to be working. He always has been one of those zone-like goalies — when he gets hot, he smolders — and it was not encouraging to see him scooping up pucks all night and raising them in his glove like a hunter raises a dead quail.

But then, this also is not new. Year after year, we face this lesson in the playoffs, and year after year, we seem to forget. Write this down: Goalies win playoff games. Happens all the time. The truth is, when Chris Osgood went down with a knee injury, this series went up for grabs. We didn’t admit it, because Ranford came out and played like something out of Greek mythology. But it was only a matter of time.

The Avalanche now has come into Detroit and handed the Wings their lunch. Not once. But twice. Scored 11 goals in two nights, while the Wings scored only one while the outcomes were still in contention. Detroit lost the games, the home-ice advantage, the momentum, and their air of invincibility.

Not that any of that means a thing right now.

Two losses and ugly memories

What matters now is the fix. That begins with Osgood, who had better be back in net Sunday afternoon in Denver. He will be rusty, no doubt. But his presence will be a spark.

And then the Wings need to stop trying to finesse a puck past Roy and start banging, firing and figuring the ugly goal is more likely than the highlight one. The power play needs its blade re-sharpened, and the defense, always this team’s strength, needs to remind itself of how it got here. Not by waiting for Colorado to take stupid penalties. That’s a luxury, not a strategy.

“What do you have to do in Game 5?” someone asked Bowman, who usually answers such questions with a complicated list of player moves and adjustments.

“We have to get our intensity back,” Bowman said.

That simple.

How serious is it? Very serious, folks. This is, without a doubt, as bad a spot as the Wings have been in since, well, since the last time they lost back-to-back playoff games at home.

That was three years ago. The team that did it?

The Colorado Avalanche.

Who went on to win the Cup.

You were expecting a coronation? Go to Buckingham Palace. The Stanley Cup is earned. The Wings say they know this. It is now up to them to prove it. Osgood may help. But the ugly memory of this embarrassing homestand must be the key motivation.

In the closing minutes of Game 4, with the arena three-quarters empty, a couple of die-hard fans began a chant from happier moments.

“We want the Cup…. We Want the Cup….”

If only wishing made it so.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 1-313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 6:30-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).

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