by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

I have this theory about the Red Wings in the playoffs. This is my theory. They should leave town.

I don’t mean for good. I mean for the start of each series. Even if they have earned home ice, decline it, start on the road. Begin each series with enemy fans, booing and hissing, telling them they’re no good. There’s less pressure to please the home crowd. And I think they’ll perform better.

It has to beat the alternative, nights like Wednesday, Game 1 of the 1997 postseason, where once again the Wings were hailed at Joe Louis Arena with fireworks, new slogans, smoke, blaring rock music and an enthralling standing ovation — and once again, they were defeated, skating off with their heads down, as if they’d let down Mom when she came to watch the school play.

How many times have we seen this? In 1993, they lost the fifth game at home against Toronto, and lost the series. In 1994, they lost the opener at home to San Jose, and lost the series. In 1995, they lost the Stanley Cup finals opener at home, and got swept. In 1996, they lost the Western Conference finals opener at home to Colorado, and down they went.

And you know what? Every game, it’s the same mood. As soon as the opposing team takes a lead, the ghosts descend from the Joe Louis Arena rafters, they swirl around cooing and booing and whispering, “Forty-one years without a Cup, whooo, whooo . . .”

And the place comes unglued. It sags. It shivers. And before you know it, the opponent has scored again.

“Maybe we opened the door to that kind of thinking in those two first-round losses to Toronto and San Jose,” Steve Yzerman admitted the day before this 2-0 loss to St. Louis. “If we had won in seven games, then whenever we fell behind, people would figure, ‘Oh, no big deal, they always come back and win.’

“But because we lost, they always worry we’re going to lose again.”

Yep. That pretty much sums up the mood Wednesday night.

Just one goal, and it’s deja Blue

“Playoff hockey is about being ahead or being behind,” coach Scotty Bowman said after the defeat. I think I know what he meant. I think he meant it’s better to be ahead.”

He also mentioned that emotions get involved depending on the score, which often accounts for the strange karma of playoff hockey in Detroit. It began anew Wednesday with Geoff Courtnall’s ricochet goal in the first period, which somehow fluttered past Yzerman’s stick and Sergei Fedorov’s body and into the net. St. Louis 1, Detroit 0.

Uh-oh. Typical of Motor City Hockey Gloom, you could feel the arena droop. One goal down for the playoff Wings is like one sniff of booze to a recovering alcoholic. All the bad memories resurface.

And the more the Wings tried to get it back, the more it danced away. Kris Draper had a golden opportunity, all alone, skating in on Grant Fuhr — but somehow the puck loosened from his stick. Darren McCarty chugged in like a man possessed, but was sandwiched by two defenders as he tried to shoot. The Wings were close, but not closing — a postseason affliction in years past. Frustrated, they put their energy into the wrong things, such as unnecessary penalties.

And then, of course, came the second bullet.

Eight seconds into a power play, Al MacInnis lined up a long slap shot from outside the circle, Pierre Turgeon tickled the puck, and that got it past Mike Vernon.

St. Louis 2, Detroit 0. And even though it was the first period, a voice seemed to say you could close the book for the night.

Wings caught with intensity down

“We didn’t play as hard as we should have,” Yzerman admitted after the game. “We were a little flat.”

I agree. Especially in the last two periods. But I don’t understand it. Coming out flat for a playoff game in Detroit is a little like coming out of the house without your pants. You shouldn’t forget something as obvious as intensity.

Then again, that’s the way St. Louis plays, bottling you up. And perhaps Wednesday’s loss should come as no surprise, because the Wings haven’t played inspired hockey since the Colorado game three weeks ago. Much as you like to think of passion as a faucet, it is more like a garden hose. There’s a delay from the turn of the knob to the time anything comes out.

So the Wings are left saying “it’s only one game” and “the next game will be different.”

Hey, they did get some fine play from Vernon in the net, and I still believe the Wings will win this series — even though for the last five years they have lost every series in which they’ve dropped the home opener.

But it does seem uncanny the way certain things repeat themselves.

Which is why I say they should play somewhere else — someplace where they can just concentrate on hockey, and not have to hear nervous boos and feel the shaking heads of the worried Detroit fans.

Go where expectations are for the other guy. Come back with a two-game lead. But since that won’t happen, I suggest the fans try the following:

Close your eyes, put your hands over your ears, and say: “THIS IS 1997, NOT LAST YEAR! THIS IS 1997, NOT LAST YEAR!”

Hopefully, that works. The only thing worse than these opening-night playoff flops are the finales that always seem to follow.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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