TORONTO — Somewhere between the third goal, which Paul Coffey put in by himself, and the fourth goal, which Paul Ysebaert knocked in while his team was down a player, and the sixth goal, which Steve Yzerman slapped in with yet another shorthanded squad, somewhere in there, the Red Wings, who had coffin dirt all over them when this night started, suddenly realized a basic truth about this playoff series against Toronto:

They are the better team.

It’s that simple. When all the talk swirls into madness, you put on your work clothes and you look in the mirror. What the Wings saw was a team that should score almost at will, themselves, against a team whose power play has far more play than power. What they saw was a team with too much talent against a team that could be rattled once it fell behind. What they saw was a group of men in Detroit uniforms who had worked too hard and too long to go home in April.

And now they don’t have to.

Red ain’t dead.

“We know we have a good team here,” said Dino Ciccarelli, who spearheaded the Wings’ 7-3 assault on the Leafs Thursday night to push this series to a deciding Game 7. “Toronto didn’t beat us in Game 5. We gave it to them. They know that. Tonight was a gut-check. A character-builder. And that’s just what we needed.”

You can say that again. Ciccarelli played as if he were trying to earn his contract in one night, and Sergei Fedorov looked like Nate Archibald, driving through blue uniforms as if they were still on hangers. It was a night for highly efficient offense (four power-play goals, two shorthanded goals) and penalty-killing defense that downright embarrassed Toronto’s attack.

But for all that, what the Wings showed Thursday was no more impressive than what they didn’t show: They didn’t show nerves. They didn’t show fear. They came out like the enemy in a video game, bombing here, bombing there, and they didn’t stop until the red lights had flashed so many times, you’d have thought the police were pulling someone over. They should have. The Leafs. For impersonating a playoff team. The game Toronto put out there, at home, with a chance to win the series, was little more than a tissue drop. Embarrassing. And the Wings, perhaps sensing this, played like a team that felt it was supposed to win. How can I put this? They played like a team that enjoyed being on the brink. By the second period, with a shorthanded cast, they were toying with the Leafs, playing keep-away on their power play, dancing around them, leaving them flailing.

I can’t tell you how important this will be if the Wings are to run all the

way into June with this playoff thing. Every championship team I’ve witnessed has a certain attraction to pressure. Such teams almost court it. The night before this game, Yzerman and Gerard Gallant went for a walk in the city. They talked about their “dire” situation. They talked about all the pressure. They talked about how awful it would be if they were eliminated. And then, out of the blue, they began to chuckle, then laugh. Pretty soon, they were cracking up. Believe it or not, that’s the kind of sign you look for.

“What did you learn about your team tonight?” Yzerman was asked after the win.

“That we respond to a challenge,” he said.

Red ain’t dead. Cheveldae came through

Of course, it helps when you do it on the ice. And the Wings did, getting production from the guys who get paid to produce. Ciccarelli, who ought to come with his own No-Pest Strip, disrupted things just enough around the net
— his specialty — to knock in three goals. Paul Coffey, the priceless veteran who warned his younger teammates “the hardest game to win is the one that clinches it,” knocked in the go-ahead puck and assisted on three others. Yzerman, who had taken heat lately, because the superstar always takes heat when the favored team goes south, put in a beautiful goal to close the second period, assisted on another, and had one more disallowed because he kicked it.

The goalie? Oh yes. A word here for Tim Cheveldae. Nice. Here was a guy you half-expected to skate out, circle the net, and faint. He was booed in his own arena Tuesday night. He was ripped in the newspapers. And he made a dumb play in the first period, coming out of the crease to try to stop Dave Andreychuk and winding up flat on his stomach as the puck fluttered into the open net, a play that drew such moans back in Detroit, you could hear them up here.

And yet Cheveldae did not collapse. He collected himself. He concentrated. He shut out the Leafs in the second period, and he rediscovered his form. Doing that mid-game is pretty impressive. There were plenty of moments in that first period when the thought occurred to bail out Cheveldae and go with backup Vince Riendeau. But at the start of the third period, Cheveldae got to look down the ice and see a new goalie.

For Toronto.

“Did that feel good?” he was asked.

He hid a grin. “A little,” he said.

It felt good. It’s not over yet

Now, fair enough. The Wings have not won this series. And the Leafs, when they play their game — assuming they can find it now — can be sticky. But don’t underestimate what the Wings accomplished on this night. They felt the nails in their feet, the wall at their backs, and they pushed off, they lived. Every time you do that in sports, you get a chip for your confidence. And it’s one more chip you have when the stakes get high again.

“Hey, we haven’t done a damn thing as far as I’m concerned,” Coffey said sternly, eyeing his teammates in the locker room. “We dug ourselves a hole, and now we’re digging out. That’s all.

“As for the criticism we got (after Game 5), sometimes it takes a scare like that to see who your friends are, and to remind you who you’re playing for. We’re playing for the guys in this room who have worked eight months to get here. That’s all. And we’re not there yet.”

They will be, I figure. Coffey is cautious. He’s supposed to be cautious. But if you look at this series, out on the ice, you see it is all there for the Wings now. Right in front of them. Back home in Game 7.

Some things are that simple. On a night when the stadium signs here read,
“The Wings Are Fried!” and the “The Wings Are Plucked!” there was only one banner missing: “The Wings Are Better.”

One game left to prove it.

Red ain’t dead.

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