Not long before the game that could have ended the Red Wings’ season, Paul Ysebaert sat by his locker and rubbed his thickening whiskers. He made a face.
“That’s it,” he said. “I’m shaving this off.”
He had been growing the beard since before the playoffs began. Athletes do this kind of thing, sometimes for fun, sometimes for superstition, sometimes to symbolize full concentration. Shave? I’m too busy to shave! We’re in the playoffs!
In this case, the whiskers weren’t helping. The Wings had lost three of the first four playoff games to the supposedly weaker North Stars. One more defeat and Detroit would be history, sent home early, miles from the promised land.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Ysebaert repeated. “I’m gonna shave right now. We need a change.”
I left the room as Ysebaert headed for the sink. But midway through Sunday night’s game, I saw the whiskers were still there. He hadn’t shaved, after all. He hadn’t changed.
Which is a good philosophy. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Wings might have been losing this series, but they weren’t blowing it. They were playing hard playoff hockey, they were dominating the shots, they were dominating the hits. They were doing everything except delivering the knockout punches and eliminating the lucky bounces, weird ricochets and drop- dead goaltending that Minnesota was getting.
In such cases, you must believe in yourselves — and you must believe in timing. You must believe that, sooner or later, things even out.
“To be honest,” Steve Yzerman would say after Sunday night’s game, “I don’t know what we could have done differently. The only thing we weren’t doing was winning.”
Which they took care of rather neatly Sunday night, with a much-awaited 3-0 shutout at Joe Louis Arena. It doesn’t make things perfect. The Wings are still perched on the edge of disaster, trailing 3-2 and heading back to Minnesota.
But it sure beats the alternative. . . .
This is how desperate things had become. Midway through the game, Shawn Burr took a stick in the face that left him grabbing his cheek. Desperate for a five-minute power play, some Red Wings fans yelled, “BLEED! BLEED! BLEED!”
Geez. Nothing like taking one for the team.
Anyhow, bleeding wasn’t necessary. Switching goaltenders wasn’t necessary. Shaking up the entire lineup wasn’t necessary.
“I thought we played the way we had been playing,” coach Bryan Murray said afterward. “Only this time we won.”
Of course, when I say don’t change, I don’t mean don’t make adjustments. Take the insertion of Mike Sillinger and Martin Lapointe into the Red Wings’ lineup Sunday night. Murray did this in an effort to put some youthful spark on the ice. After all, Sillinger and Lapointe are what, 9 years old?
Just kidding. Lapointe is all of 18, and Sillinger an old man of 20. And there they were in the third period, combining on a pretty pass and goal that gave the Wings a 2-0 lead and the breathing room they needed. Lapointe and Sillinger? The crowd went nuts.
“Are you going to use those kids again on Tuesday night?” someone asked Murray in the press conference after the game.
“Oh, no,” he deadpanned, mocking his coaching brilliance, “they played much too well tonight. I’m not using them again. I’ll save them until next year.”
Here was another adjustment: Tim Cheveldae. Not his goaltending. He played pretty much the way he always has — even in the games he lost during this series. No. I am referring to his wardrobe. Sunday, he arrived in a yellow sports jacket that vaguely resembled a Florida grapefruit. He has worn that jacket just twice before in his career, and both times, he said, “I got abused by my teammates terribly.”
“So,” someone asked, “why wear it tonight?”
“Hey,” he answered. “We were down 3-1. I was ready to try anything.”
He pulled on the lapels.
“And you can bet I’m taking this thing to Minnesota now.”
But OK. Outside of a funny jacket and a couple of peppy kids, the Red Wings basically won the way they have been winning all year. With good goaltending and good passing and with Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, who combined for the first goal of the evening.
Oh, there were still plenty of missed opportunities. That, apparently, is going to be the theme of this series for Detroit. If you had a dollar for every shot that skipped past the net or ricocheted off the post or died on the
goal line under a stick, well, you’d be able to afford another set of playoff tickets.
But when it all came down to it, the Wings simply were not ready to fold the tent on this 98-point season. Going home for the summer while the calendar still reads April was not what these guys had in mind, not after winning their division.
“You know it never even occurred to me that we could be playing our last game of the season tonight,” Yzerman said. “Once I got here, I began to think about it. Then we were all sitting around in the locker room and the radio was on, and the weather report said 38 degrees and snow flurries for tomorrow. And I said, ‘Hold on here, guys. It’s still winter. It’s not time to stop playing yet.’ “
And so they shall. Tuesday night will be another test of their character, and so will Thursday, if they get that far. They’ll most likely do so by not panicking, by not feeling undue pressure, believing in the facts that say they have the better team. You want a playoff philosophy? Here’s a playoff philosophy: There’s no reason to make big changes. No reason to do anything but win.
I ran into Ysebaert in the locker room afterward. He was running toward the shower.
“Hey,” I said. “You didn’t shave, after all. Were you making a statement?”
“Nah,” he said, “I just forgot.”
So much for philosophy.