WINGS DID ALL THEY COULD – EXCEPT WIN

I’ve seen heavyweight fights that go like this: One guy comes out on fire, he slugs and pounds and gets the crowd all worked up. Pow! Pow! His fists are flying, and his opponent takes every shot, the blood spitting from his face, until he looks like he’ll go down any moment — which only excites the aggressor more. Only the opponent doesn’t go down. He stays standing. Blow after blow. And finally, the first guy, exhausted from all this punching with no reward, takes a breath, says, “Hey, what’s with this lug?”

And pow! The other guy knocks him out.

It wasn’t boxing Monday night at Joe Louis Arena. It might as well have been. If the Red Wings had put any more sweat into that first period, they would have been officially dehydrated, taken off on stretchers, given fluids intravenously. What else are you supposed to do but rush the net, storm the goalkeeper and pound the hell out of anybody near the boards?

What else?

Well, scoring would be nice.

But it didn’t happen. Not enough. And in the few stolen moments that the Red Wings took a breath Monday night, the Minnesota North Stars, a team which must wear four-leaf clovers under their uniforms, got all they needed. This is what they got: Four goals. Another win. A 2-0 lead in this first-round playoff series.

And — pow! — a trip home for the next two games, with one skate on the neck of the Red Wings.

The Wings got mad. But they didn’t get even.

“The other night I could complain about effort, tonight I can’t,” coach Bryan Murray said after the Wings’ second straight home loss to the North Stars, 4-2. “I have no apologies for the effort.”

No. All he has is the final score. And some growling emotions.

Mad. But not even. Give the North Stars some credit, too

Which is probably how most fans feel this morning, at least those who expected the Norris Division champion should beat a team that barely qualified for the playoffs. Those fans will be grumbling about holding penalties that weren’t called. Or the seemingly lucky bounce that helped score the Stars’ winning goal. Or the near misses the Wings had on shots near the Minnesota net.

But it wouldn’t be fair to say the Wings earned this game every minute they were out there. At least it wouldn’t be fair to Minnesota. The Wings could barely win a face-off — which is unforgivable if you’re going to play aggressive hockey. And while they got thrills from the power play, they got no production.

In fact, the Wings’ power play had as much trouble getting started as a Florida car on an Alaska morning. Hey, somebody find the gas pedal on this thing. Does it really take four Harlem Globetrotters weaves before you bring the puck across the zone?

But OK. Having spit all that out, I’ll also spit this: on another night, this team is good enough to overcome those things.

But this was this night.

“During the course of the year, maybe you have a half-dozen games like this where you play harder but you don’t win,” captain Steve Yzerman admitted.

“Does that make this defeat easier or tougher to take?”

“Neither.”

Fair enough. Let’s be clear. This was not Saturday night, when the Stars played the aggressor. Nuh-uh. This was Detroit player smashing Minnesota player into the boards, and Detroit player swarming the net and diving for any loose puck. This was shots-on-goal Detroit 30, shots-on-goal Minnesota 20.

This was a loss?

It seems fitting that the Wings’ final shot was a strong slap shot by Nicklas Lidstrom that hit goalie Jon Casey in the pads — without Casey seeing it.

It is also fitting that the final shot by the North Stars was into an open net.

Pow! Knockout.

Mad, but not even. Everything’s magnified in playoffs

In the locker room before Monday night’s game, Murray was chuckling at the way things change at playoff time. “We lose the first game, 4-3, and everyone wants to know what’s wrong?” he said, shaking his head. “It’s amazing.”

That’s true. But so is this: The season shrinks during the playoffs. One game is like five, and two is like 10. Especially when you’re going on the road, against an opponent that came from nowhere last year and went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals.

“Sure, I’m surprised,” said Stars coach Bob Gainey. “I never said to myself, ‘Hey, we’ll drop into Detroit, stay a few days, and win two games.’ “

Great. Sarcasm.

Well. How else do you look at a night like this? There is no reason to think the Wings can’t still win this series. They still have the better team, if you ask me. And they know how to win on the road. Sure, you would have to say odds are against them now, having to go into a foreign arena and win some games.

Then again, isn’t that what they were saying about Minnesota a few days ago?

“It’s true, you have games like this during the regular season,” goalie Tim Cheveldae admitted, with a sigh, “the only difference is, you’re going against a clock now.”

Mad, but not even.

And the season just got shorter.

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