SAN JOSE, Calif. – As we always say, you can never have enough Swedes on your hockey team. Mikael Samuelsson may not be the first name you think of when rattling off Swedish Wings, but Monday night he was the Nordic Nuke, the Scandinavian Slayer, the Go-To Goteburger. His two goals in less than five minutes continued a streak of Swedish successes that have finally, finally, given the Red Wings two things they desperately wanted:
1) A return to the Western Conference finals for the first time in five years, and
2) A day off.
Swedeness and light.
“A few bounces go our way tonight, I should say,” Samuelsson gushed after the 2-0 victory.
He should say. Samuelsson was an unlikely hero. Until this past weekend, the man they call “Sammy” (Sammy the Swede? Isn’t that a “Sopranos” character?) had never scored in the playoffs. He was not a big presence in the first round. A foot injury marred much of his season.
But in the last five minutes of the first period, Sammy was the Can’t Miss Kid. One puck he chased and caught and backhanded. Another puck he carried, deked and swatted. Both went past Evgeni Nabokov. And combined they put the Wings up 2-0 – the first time that has happened in this series – allowing them a chance to breathe, dig in, and finish this thing.
He started the scoring. He ended it, too.
“It’s unbelievable, I should say,” he said.
Swedeness and light. The captain can tend the net
Not that Samuelsson was alone in the Swedish highlight department. The pass he took for his first goal was a perfect thread from fellow countryman Johan Franzen. And in between goal No. 1 and goal No. 2 was a play for the ages by Nicklas Lidstrom, the captain.
Here’s what happened: The Sharks’ Mike Grier chased a loose puck down the ice, with Lidstrom following in hot pursuit. The crowd rose. Goalie Dominik Hasek came out and swept the puck behind him, but Grier got to it and swooped around from behind the net, which was now as empty as a beggar’s pocket.
And then Lidstrom. I don’t know how he does it. Somehow he stretched that reedy body and surged his stick across the mouth of the goal a shaved instant before Grier released the puck. It hit Nick’s stick and frittered away, and the Sharks’ optimism frittered away with it.
“So you play goalie, too?” Lidstrom was asked in the locker room afterward.
“I try to help out a little,” he said.
Hey. Nick made a joke!
Swedeness and light. More West Coast geography
And now, with the Game 6 victory, it’s back to the conference finals – against Anaheim, Mike Babcock’s old team. The Wings are slowly working their way down the western side of the continent. They defeated Calgary in the shadow of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, they defeated San Jose in the shadow of the Santa Cruz Mountains and now they get the Ducks in the shadow of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.
They are going to the conference finals for the fourth time since 1997. The good news: The other three times they won the Stanley Cup.
And why not this time? The Wings are showing resilience, perseverance, toughness and – oh yeah – great goaltending. Hasek was so good Monday night you almost felt sorry for the Sharks. It wasn’t like they didn’t have chances. They outshot the Wings all night. But Hasek stonewalled them, taking point-blank shots, rebound tries, the big swings, the little chops.
“I was laughing, all the matchups and other stuff,” Babcock said of Hasek, “it’s like it doesn’t matter anyhow, he’s decided.”
That gives you chills. Because the last time the Wings won a Cup was the last time Hasek was in their net. But while Dom is the same, let’s be clear: The rest of the team has changed. These are not your older brother’s Wings, with the Hall of Fame lineup, the Yzerman, Shanahan, Hull, Larionov or Fedorov Wings.
These Wings are quieter, less flashy, maybe less recognizable – and more Swedish. Their last four goals have been scored by Samuelsson and Tomas Holmstrom, and Lidstrom had the play of the night. I hear the coaching staff is taking up tennis, blond hair and neutrality.
Whatever. The Wings got it done. They’re in the conference finals. The upset rounds are over. It’s an E ticket now. Swedeness and light.
Game on, we should say.