WITH AN ACE IN THE HOLE, WINGS GO FOR NET RESULTS

EDMONTON, Alberta — “Hey, how does this machine work?” Greg Stefan hollered. He was with several teammates inside a subway station. They were heading to a morning practice at Northlands Coliseum. But the ticket box kept spitting back Stefan’s quarters.

“Drop them a little slower,” suggested Mel Bridgman. “Like this. See? Give it a chance to settle, and it works.”

Stefan let the coins drop more slowly. And out came his ticket. He grabbed it, marched ahead to his teammates, and fell into their pace.

Give it a chance to settle, and it works. Fitting words, no? Here was the Red Wings’ No. 1 goalie, a sometimes brilliant player who’d been demoted during the Toronto playoff series, when he was awful, and who’d reacted like an angry child. He refused to dress. He sat up in the organ loft. His replacement, Glen Hanlon, was simply All-World, and largely because of him, the Red Wings won the series. They advanced.

Now, the day of the opening game against Edmonton, the semifinal round, the biggest game of the year in a season in which every game is now the biggest game of the year — and Greg Stefan was back. The anger? The resentment? The harsh words? Give him a chance to settle . . .

“You starting tonight?” asked a commuter.

“Yep,” said Stefan.

. . . and he works. He would do things differently

“What about all that happened in the Toronto series?” Stefan was asked after practice. “Have you just forgotten all that now?”

“I want to,” he said. “If I could go back and change it I would. I would do things differently. I would have just gone right to Jacques (Demers) and told him how I felt. No newspapers or anything. And I would have dressed.

“I was upset, I was very upset. What can I do? I don’t regret what I was feeling. I regret what happened. But I can’t change that, right?”

Right. But Demers can.

At least he tried to Tuesday night. Here was the latest chapter in Men Without Nets. Goalie, goalie, who plays goalie? The herky-jerky antics of Demers and his net men have both fascinated and frightened Red Wings fans, like watching a crap table player on a hot streak. How long does he keep the magic touch?

Stefan over Glen Hanlon? Now? If you weren’t curious about this move, you’re not curious about hockey. Hanlon was a brick house in goal against Toronto, almost nothing got by. Hot? He was lava. And he’s sitting down?

“Why now?” Demers was asked 50 times Tuesday.

“I felt we’d gone as far as we could with Hanlon,” he said. “Stef’s played well against Edmonton this year, and I told him he’d get a chance in the third

round. And besides, I’ve got Hanlon as a backup.”

That was his “official” statement. Here is a better explanation: Hanlon is tired. He’d started five games in nine days. Had he started Tuesday night and gotten racked, the Wings would be down, 1-0, and the “ace” everyone was talking about would be proved mortal. Then what? Come back with Hanlon in Game 2, while Stefan continues to rust? Or go to Stefan, and everyone smells panic?

On the other hand, Demers starts Stefan in Game 1; and if he shines, well, great, now there are two worthy goaltenders. And if he collapses, OK, Demers can start Hanlon next game, the Wings remain confident — because, hey, now they’re going with the ace — and the sting of a 1-0 deficit is reduced to a gentle bite.

Get it? Not one or the other, but both

In the locker room after practice Tuesday, a small mob of reporters encircled Stefan, the man of the hour, while Hanlon dressed alone in a nearby stall.

“Hey, Glen,” yelled Mark Kumpel, eyeing the crowd, “what’d Stef do? Dye his hair orange and call himself ‘the Fly’?”

Hanlon laughed. Stefan never heard it. The players on this team know who got them to this point: Hanlon . . . and Stefan. The answer is both. Do not forget that before his temper tantrum, Stefan was king of the hill — “a big reason we’re in the playoffs at all,” as Demers likes to point out.

The best situation for the Wings is not to have one or the other, but both. The house divided that we saw during the Toronto series did nobody any good.

“How long will this last?” Stefan was asked.

He shrugged. “If I win I’ll probably continue playing. If I lose . . . well, Glen deserves to be in there. Right now I’m just happy to be back in action.”

Give it a chance to settle, and it works. Maybe. That is all Jacques Demers can hope for, anyhow. He knows goalies, like the machines at that subway station, can be your ticket in the playoffs. But only if you handle them right.

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