The locker was clean, four skates, a jacket and a pair of sneakers tucked neatly inside. The helmet on the top shelf bore No. 19, and the name plate across the front read “Yzerman.” It was a sad picture. A grim reminder.

And anyone who points to that locker and says that’s why Detroit lost should turn in his skates right now.

There are many reasons why the Red Wings are now hanging out the car window of their remarkable season, flapping in the wind like some daredevil in
“Mission: Impossible” — but only one of those reasons is the injury to their captain, and that one is way down the list. I feel sorry for Steve. You feel sorry for Steve. But if this team isn’t good enough to win without him, it shouldn’t be playing at this level of playoffs.

Head for the mountains. Regroup. Retool. This Red Wings team is good enough to do anything, including win four of the next five games, if you don’t believe that, you haven’t been paying attention all year. Whether they will do it is another story. They are like weary climbers right now, having raced to the first high peak, scampered to the second, dragged to the third, and crept along, so far, to the fourth.

Come to think of it, maybe it’s not such a great idea to go to high altitude right now.

Then again, they don’t have a choice.

Head for the mountains.

“We’re just not scoring goals,” said a frustrated Dino Ciccarelli, after the stunning 3-0 defeat Tuesday night by the Avalanche, the first of Detroit’s recent losses in these playoffs that really felt like it was deserved. “We’re pressing, but we can’t abandon the system that got us here. Missing (Steve) is not an excuse.”

Thank you, Dino. Shut out? Come on. I knew Yzerman was their leading playoff goal-scorer. I didn’t know he was their only one. The captain dressed for the game, skated in warm-ups, then shook his head and said “no go.” If you know Yzerman, you know that took a lot of doing, which means he may be more seriously hurt than anyone is admitting (hardly a new thing in Scotty Bowman’s regime). This also means he could be a no-go for Game 3, or at least a husk of himself if he’s out there.

Which brings us back to a painfully familiar question: Who steps up? So where’s Sergei?

Where is the Scottie Pippen to the Yzerman’s Michael Jordan? Where is the Jaromir Jagr to this team’s Mario Lemieux? Remember the 1980 NBA Finals, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar couldn’t go? Magic Johnson, a rookie, played center, scored 42 points, and pretty much won the title for the Lakers. Or when Phil Simms went down with the Giants, and Jeff Hostetler came in and led the team to a Super Bowl?

The sports world is full of star-is-born stories, and heaven knows, if there was ever a team that has enough star candidates, it is this one.

Does it matter that Sergei Fedorov was heavily defensed — isn’t every key offensive player? If Sergei stays as invisible as he has been this series, you can take the word “superstar” off his resume.

Does it matter that Keith Primeau has fought injuries, or that Paul Coffey could barely stand after the game, his back so sore from spasms — isn’t everyone injured at this time of year? The playoffs are war. You survive or you are erased.

You know where Yzerman was missed most Tuesday night? In the locker room afterward. The Wings have been in dire situations before, but Yzerman always seemed to be there, saying things would be fine, he was confident in his team. With some guys, the words spread like gas. The gas was gone. That’s where Yzerman was missed.

So instead of standing up, the Wings, a tired and injured team, are staggering. There was one stretch in the second period Tuesday that seemed to sum up the whole evening. Claude Lemieux — who ought to come with a cape, mustache, black hat and sword — got pounded to the ice by Fedorov, then did a little do-si-do with Vladimir Konstantinov, exchanging enough dirty words to fill a subway wall, then got shoved around by Coffey, and was finally upended by goalie Chris Osgood, a trip from behind. When the evil Claude got up, he curled into Osgood, helmet-to-helmet, puffed out his chest and bowled the little guy over — right in front of a referee.

He didn’t seem to care. And why should he? While he was in the penalty box, the Avalanche scored another goal.

Head for the mountains. Game 3 means everything

Whoever wins the next game will win this series. I believe that. If the Wings come back and take one, the Colorado carpet ride will be grounded, and that may be enough to remind the Avalanche players of who they are — a team that has never been this far. You start thinking, you get in your own way.

On the other hand, these Red Wings aren’t winning four in a row. They are too hurt, and too haunted. And folks, let’s face some ugly realities here: Since the playoffs started, the Wings have won just eight games and lost seven. That would make it their worst stretch of the season.

“Hey, we’re playing well,” said Avalanche coach Marc Crawford. “We took away their time and their space.”

Gee, what’s left?

Thursday night. That is what’s left. In the next sunrise and sunset, the Wings will ask questions and seek answers. And they better not point to the unattended locker of their captain. They better point to themselves.

Head for the mountains.

A little prayer wouldn’t hurt, either.

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