It turned out the writers, critics, talk show hosts and fans were all worried about the wrong goaltender. The guys in red weren’t the problem. It was the guy in blue, a young bearded Russian whose last name — Khabibulin — sounds likes something you receive in a blood transfusion. And fittingly, he pumped life into a team that was supposed to be dead, and a nervous shiver into a team that was supposed to be resting this morning.

“Take the best word you can think of,” gushed Winnipeg’s Keith Tkachuk,
“and that’s the word for what Nik did tonight!”

How about astounding, annoying, amazing, aggravating, impenetrable, impossible, incredible?

Or, how about “call the travel agent.”

Backward, march! Instead of the weekend off, the Wings are returning to the airport. Instead of a warming trend, they return to snow. Instead of being finished with eighth-seeded Winnipeg, they have a Game 6 in the meanest arena in hockey, and the most likely place to get hit in the head with a whitefish.

Backward, march. The Wings did everything but turn the Jets upside down and shake the loose change out of their pockets Friday night, yet they came away empty-handed, nothing to show for a night in which they had more shots than an Oliver Stone movie. They were beaten with less offense, fewer power plays and a weaker effort everywhere but in the net. And what was supposed to be a
“nice try” for the Jets against a superior Detroit team is now turning into a Custer’s Last Stand for Canadian hockey, and the last thing the Wings need is to become a symbol for American capitalism. Hey, all they’re trying to do is win a Stanley Cup!

“I’ve ever seen a better performance by a goaltender against us,” said the Wings’ Chris Osgood, who, for his part, faced only 18 shots in the Wings’ 3-1 loss to the Jets. “Even from where I was standing, it seemed like so many pucks could have gone in, but they went past the net, over the net, to the side of the net — everywhere but by him.”

In the end, even the home equipment seemed to be stacked against the Wings. The Jets’ winning goal came off a Red Wing’s stick. A deflected shot by Sergei Fedorov that would have tied the game clinked the goal post and ricocheted away. And a final clearing pass by Winnipeg — only its 19th shot of the night
— found its way to an open goal, which swallowed it like a frog swallows a fly.

Backward, march. An iron curtain

“For me, it is easier when I face 50 shots than when I face 30,” said Nikolai Khabibulin, who — if you believe the shot board — stopped 51 Red Wings offerings Friday night. “I had fun out there.”

Well. That makes one of us.

But one is all it takes — if the one is the goalie. Let’s face it. The Jets didn’t even arrive until Thursday night, having been snowed in back in Winnipeg. All signs seemed to point to this script: get dressed, skate out there, give the Wings as good a game as, say, the Washington Generals give the Harlem Globetrotters, and go home for the season.

But someone forgot to give the script to Khabibulin. From the start of the game, he went high, low, straight up, way down. He used his legs, his arms, he stopped slap shots and chip shots, baseball swings and double-pokes. Time and time again, the Wings would swarm, often with a one-man advantage, and one time with a two-man advantage, and time and time again, he would close them down.

Here was Igor Larionov with a beautiful drop pass to Slava Kozlov, no more than four feet from the goal, shot — blocked! Here was Keith Primeau weaving his big body through three defenders, shooting as he slid to the ice — stopped! Here was Slava Fetisov with a point-blank rebound — save! Here was Paul Coffey, Bob Errey, Doug Brown, Dino Ciccarelli, all with point-blank shots — all denied.

There’s a rule of thumb in the NHL. When your shot total is higher than the Dow Jones, and you still lose, blame the man in the mask.

Khabibulin was an iron curtain. On the road again

So now we go back to Winnipeg, which is a little like saying let’s go back to the holding pen. The Wings players had no idea about plane times and practice schedules for Game 6 before Friday’s Game 5. “No way,” Ciccarelli said. “We weren’t even thinking about having to play another game. I’m not saying we took them lightly, but we didn’t plan on losing.”

The weight now is on the Wings, and the one thing they need to guard against is letting mental pressure affect physical play. Hard as it may seem to believe this morning, the Wings remain the far superior team, and as long as they play their game, they will win this series. “I think we feel if we put 50 shots up on him again, we’ll win,” said captain Steve Yzerman.

Exactly. The key is to believe you can. That’s easier said than done, when an army of white-shirted fans are throwing their trash can contents at your heads.

“Hey, no one said it would be easy,” said Osgood, using the most convenient cliche. Of course, no one said their goalie would be this good, either. The Wings have nearly doubled the Jets’ shots in this series. They hope now only to double their victories

Backward, march.

Whoda thunk it?

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