WINGS: NOW OR NEVERWIN OR BE GOOSED BY THE MIGHTY DUCKS

ANAHEIM, Calif. — It’s like having your head in a guillotine and hoping the blade gets stuck. The worst moment in sports. The odds are insane. You don’t come back from an 0-3 deficit in the playoffs.

Do you?

“What do you tell yourself now?” someone asked Brendan Shanahan on Tuesday, after what might be the Red Wings’ last practice of the season.

“We tell ourselves we know it’s only happened twice in NHL history,” he said.
“But we’re a team that’s capable of doing it.”

All around the Red Wings’ dressing room, the graveyard loomed as the whistling continued. Players like Shanahan, who couldn’t get to sleep before 5 a.m. after the crushing Game 3 loss. Players like Curtis Joseph, who had to defend his play to reporters, muttering at one point, “You guys can blame it on me, if you want.” Players like Brett Hull and Chris Chelios, who walked out silently, slowly, as if dragging their legs behind them.

You looked at these Red Wings and you realized they all had something in common: stubble. Not beards. It was too early for full beards. They were just getting started on everything — on defending the crown, on growing their beards. And now this. One game from elimination. Still in the stubble stage.

“The funny thing is,” Shanahan said, “I’ve been on teams where we’ve really been outplayed and beaten down.”

He looked down the hallway. “We don’t feel that way at all.”

Yet here they are, having lost three straight for the first time all season, and it doesn’t matter if they lost them by an inch or a galaxy. Down 3-0 in a best-of-seven series is all but certain death. The worst moment in sports. Like waiting for the teacher to hand back a test you know you failed. Like calling a girl who just told you she has no interest. The odds are insane. Why do you bother?

“You bother because you have to,” Sergei Fedorov said. He pulled on his shoes and tugged on the laces. “To me, this is no different than when we went to Colorado last year trailing three games to two. It is a stage of elimination. That’s all.”

Yes, except at this stage, you have to win tonight, Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday. Against a team that has held you to four goals in 11-plus periods. How discouraging is that? Like spotting a cop as you run a red light. Like hoping for good box office after a flood of bad reviews. Why do you bother?

How can you stop asking yourself that?

‘A wall against our back’

“Did you say a lot to Joseph?” someone asked Dave Lewis, the Wings’ coach, about his beleaguered goalie. “Did you try to give him extra encouragement?”

“I saw him at breakfast,” Lewis answered. “I said hello. I may have said: ‘Did you have a good breakfast?’ “

What else can he say? These aren’t children. These are veterans, many in their mid-30s, who have seen it all before. What can you say? The tortures of their paradise lost were already all around them. Bad memories of Monday night at the Pond: Fedorov pinging a shot off the post; Shanahan on a breakaway, firing six inches too low; Hull, Pavel Datsyuk, Kirk Maltby all with point-blank chances, all getting stopped; the zero on the scoreboard; the time slipping away; Joseph, hesitating before he left the net, then scrambling to get back, too late to stop a deflected puck that was the nail in the Game 3 coffin.

All around them these memories swirled, ghosts in the funhouse, laughing and haunting. Why do you bother? The Wings must feel like they’re on an amusement ride of someone else’s making, and they are not permitted to disembark until fate dumps them in the trough.

“The thing is how it happened so fast,” Fedorov said. “It feels like we are never given a platform to stand on, only a wall against our back.”

An unusual way of putting it. But accurate just the same. After each of the first two losses, the Wings comforted themselves with the idea that they were playing well. In truth, that might have been the worst sign of all. Playing poorly can be fixed. But if you’re already on your game — and your game isn’t getting it done? Well, then what?

Then, nothing. Which is pretty much what the Wings have gotten from their offense. Nothing. Which is pretty much what the Wings have gotten from their goaltending, too. It is true, Joseph has made some fine stops. But one soft goal a night is too much in the playoffs, especially when you need a shutout. Remember, Anaheim is not a team known for its spectacular offense, and a rookie nobody ever heard of has two of the Ducks’ big scores and a guy named Pahlsson has another. This only makes you wonder how Joseph would be doing against the Forsbergs, Sakics and Modanos.

Not that he’s likely to get a chance.

Time to face the music

How did all this happen? Wasn’t it six days ago that all was cheery and bright? The Wings had 110 points, home ice through at least the first two rounds of the playoffs, and a champion’s quiet swagger? Maybe that was it. Maybe they’ve been winners for so long, they’ve forgotten the simple rule of underdogs: The longer they survive, the stronger they get.

So while every shot the Wings just missed was, in their minds, proof of their inevitable success, for Anaheim, it was validation they could stay in the building and ultimately win. To change that, to win one tonight, to avoid the sad embarrassment of a first-round sweep, the Wings will have to bang harder, clutter the net area better, win more face-offs and not allow a single slip on defense. Not one. The good news is this: The likelihood Detroit will win four in a row is only slightly more incredible than the possibility Anaheim would win three. And that already has happened.

The bad news is, how often can lightning get swallowed by a bottle?

The countdown to the answer continues. It’s like climbing on a horse you know will buck you. Like coming home after curfew and seeing the light on in your parents’ bedroom. Like being called into the coach’s office and being told to bring your playbook. It is pretty much the worst moment in sports.

Except for one.

And that one looms just 60 hockey minutes away.

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).

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