WINGS LEFT TO LAMENT EXIT, PONDER NEXT MOVES

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Chris Chelios wore a black suit over a black shirt. His hair was still wet. He looked as if he’d showered to go to a funeral, which in some ways he had.

“This,” he said in the hallway outside the visitors’ dressing room, “is like a waste of a year.”

All around him, his Detroit Red Wings teammates shuffled past, heads down, hands in pockets, looking for an empty piece of wall to stand against. Their seven-day war was over. They had lost every battle.

And now came the search for words. Darren McCarty, a free agent who may have played his last game for this franchise, remained shirtless by his locker. “It makes you want to throw up,” he said. Sergei Fedorov, who also may have played his last game for this franchise, pulled on his jacket and predicted, “In a few days, I’ll have a very stupid feeling.” Steve Yzerman, who rehabbed from knee surgery to come back for the playoffs, stood in a corner and said, “I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything.” A few feet away, Brendan Shanahan was reliving the action. “I kept thinking here we go, we got them on their heels. . . .”

A waste of a year. How can it not be? This was not just about the Wings’ now-meaningless regular-season excellence, or the four games they just lost to Anaheim in historic fashion, the first time in more than half a century that the defending Stanley Cup champion was swept in the first round.

No. This was more about the games they’ll never get to play now, the semifinals, the conference finals, the Stanley Cup finals, with a roster capable of beating anybody. This was about being put on the shelf before the wrapping came off. About having a door slammed before you get to finish your sales pitch.

All day Thursday, Detroit fans were in a delayed state of disbelief, as if they’d woken up and the spouse, house and job had all disappeared.

“On the ice, when we were shaking hands with the Ducks,” Shanahan said, “a couple of their guys told me, ‘We have no business being here. We didn’t deserve to win.’ “

He scowled in disgust.

“What could I say? That I agree with them?”

The moments of truth

What could he say? There are few words. Igor Larionov, at 42 the oldest player in hockey — and another guy who may have played his last game in a Detroit uniform — put a leg up on an equipment trunk and struggled to find a way to describe it.

“Never have I been in something like this,” he said. “It’s like we just started and now we’re out of the playoffs.”

What was the tipping point? When did the Wings lose their grasp on destiny?

Was it Game 1, when three overtimes and 64 shots weren’t enough to score more than once on Anaheim?

Was it Game 2, when a third-period lead evaporated in the final seven minutes, and the Wings left Joe Louis Arena wondering whether they’d be coming back?

Was it Game 3, when the Wings hoped the change in scenery would change their fortunes — only to see Curtis Joseph hesitate, then leave the net, with disastrous consequences?

Was it Game 4, when, while nursing a 1-0 lead, Mathieu Dandenault thought play had stopped and pulled up, allowing the puck to be stolen and turned into a rallying goal?

Was it even earlier — the last afternoon of the regular season, when the Wings blew a late lead and lost to lowly Chicago, getting the No. 2 seed against Anaheim instead of the No. 1 seed against Edmonton?

Or was it none of the above? Was it instead, the simple presence of Ducks goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, a three-namer like other famous assassins — Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wilkes Booth — and a man in a mask who will live in Detroit hockey infamy? This 25-year-old, first-time playoff netminder became, as Fedorov put it, “a very big man in a very small net.” He was beyond brilliant. A 97 percent save ratio? He was a rock wall. A bank vault.

“I haven’t seen goaltending like that since Dominik Hasek at the 1998 Olympics,” Shanahan said. “He was stopping shots he couldn’t even see.”

There was one moment late in Wednesday night’s Game 4 in which Mathieu Schneider whacked a shot at Giguere, and it deflected up in the air, flipped over Giguere’s head and landed on his back. Most of the time, a puck like that will bounce off and fall into the net. This one bounced and fell to the side.

You know what they call that? Buzzard’s luck.

Can’t kill nothin’. Can’t find nothin’.

The guilty parties?

Blame? OK. If it makes you feel better, here’s some blame:

Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille and Yzerman, who among them have more than 2,000 NHL goals, combined for one in this series. One?

Blame? Where was the traffic in front of the net? Giguere said after the series that “I saw all the shots coming.” Were the Wings too content to snipe from the perimeter, figuring eventually their talent would win out?

Blame? How about defensive lapses? Chelios turned the puck over and it led to a goal. Fedorov was out of position and it led to a goal. Dandenault fell asleep and it led to a goal. “We had a handful of defensive breakdowns,” Yzerman admitted. “Not many, but they came at key times.”

Blame? Was the coaching adequate? The Detroit brain trust seemed to approach each game saying, “We’re the Red Wings. Our game will beat your game.” But four straight times it didn’t. Was it confidence or hubris that kept something different from being tried?

Blame? Joseph was good, but not great, and at $8 million a year, you have to be great. There was at least one goal each night that made you wince and say,
“He could have stopped that. . . .”

Or worse: “Giguere would have stopped that. . . .”

And that shows you the limits of finger-pointing. It’s hard to tell where blame stops and credit begins.

“They won four games by one goal each time,” McCarty said. “When we won in years past, we had timely goals and a lucky break here or there. That was them this time. They were what we were.”

The long hot summer

So now what? What becomes of the 2003 Detroit roster? The Wings are the first team out of the playoffs this spring, the first team thinking golf instead of hockey, and they handed the Stanley Cup over so quickly, it can take its own vacation: It’s an orphan for at least six weeks.

Do you scatter the players to the wind? No. That would be silly, although some familiar faces — Fedorov, Larionov, Robitaille, McCarty — may be gone no matter what. But with players like Hull, Chelios and Yzerman already defying the aging gods, it is imperative that younger players like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg become more dominant. Who knows whether there’s any money to sign new major talent? The Wings sure didn’t fill the postseason coffers.

And then there’s the goaltending. Joseph will have the longest summer of all, and given his huge contract, he’s here for a couple more years, for good or bad. That will never make Wings fans feel confident unless he reverses fortune and wins a Cup.

On the other hand, as Shanahan said, “There’s always a tendency to blame the new guys when you lose. You say, ‘What’s different from this year to last year? Oh, Curtis Joseph. Oh, Dave Lewis.’ But that would be wrong.”

He set his jaw. “There’s no reason this team can’t come back next year and win a Cup.”

Maybe he’s right. Or maybe it’s the same spirit that said, “We can come back from a 3-0 deficit.” Well-meaning, but mythical. Who knows? In the meantime, now what? How do we keep from haunting ourselves with these memories: four losses, six goals, goose eggs for Hall of Famers and a goalie surrendering twice to a kid named Krog?

Somewhere the hockey gods are laughing. Somewhere they love the fickle heart of their creation. One team says, “What are we doing here?” as it plans for Round 2. The other team says, “What are we doing here?” as it plops in the couch, showered for the funeral, with April, May and June suddenly open on the calendar. There goes Stanley. A waste of a year. Doesn’t this just stink?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

(SIDEBAR) LOSING WITH THE WINGS

The Red Wings’ debacle changes the sports landscape in Detroit. Here is a glance at the winners and losers.

LOSER: Mike Ilitch Wings’ departure clears calendar for more May and June Tigers games.
‘Nuff said.

LOSER: Post Bar The Post and other downtown watering holes are sure to see drop in revenue from lost Labatt’s sales.

LOSER: People Mover Without Wings in the playoffs, there won’t be many people to move.

LOSER: City of Detroit City gets portion of ticket revenue and concessions. On plus side: no need to worry about paying for a parade.

WINNER: Golf courses When hockey players aren’t playing hockey, they’re golfing. Hey Grind Line, need a fourth?

WINNER: Detroit Pistons For the first time in a decade the Pistons have center stage in Detroit’s spring sports arena to themselves.

MORE WINGS To read Mitch Albom’s column and other coverage from the Red Wings’ season-ending game, go to www.freep.com/index/redwings.htm.

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