WORKMANLIKE DETROIT GRINDS OUT WIN IN FINALS OPENER

On a night where they reached for the highest heights, the story would be summed up by a man on his belly. Here was Darren McCarty, in the third period of this surprisingly tight Stanley Cup finals opener, and he saw trouble coming. Washington’s Joe Juneau, who has had a knack for big shots in these playoffs, was about to make another one, coming in unchecked on goalie Chris Osgood. McCarty was too far behind to block him, too far away to hit him, there simply wasn’t enough of McCarty to do what was needed. So he did the only thing he could: He elongated himself. Went belly-first, stick out, stretched from six feet standing to about 10 feet lying down, and got his stick-head on the puck just before Juneau could get off a shot. The play ended with a whimper, not a bang — and as much could be said of the rest of the night.

Caps Capped. Wings Win. The score was 2-1, in a game that will not likely be a showcase for NHL excitement. But what did you expect? Art? A blowout? Hey. These are the Stanley Cup finals. You win on your knees, you win on your belly, you win on a bed of nails if you have to. People always focus on goals that are made, but the story of this one was the goals that were not. And better yet, the shots that never were. The Red Wings took a team that was averaging 30 shots a game against its previous opponent, and held it to 17.

So it wasn’t a shooting gallery. It was two early goals by the Wings, and a night full of guarding the treasure. It was Osgood making tremendous saves, catching hot pucks in his glove, stopping point-blank shots when no one was there to help.

It was 2-0 in the first period. It was 2-1 after two. And finally it was that furious closing segment, when the Wings realized their slim lead would have to be enough. Their passion increased. Their skating accelerated. And when the Capitals pulled their goalie, we had a couple minutes of all-out war, Washington trying desperately to slap anything on net, Osgood and company keeping it just at bay. There were near misses and close shots and the kind of screams that you normally hear in horror movies.

But in the end, the Wings squeaked the puck loose, chased it down the ice, and heard the horn sound to put Game 1 in their pocket.

OK, so it wasn’t art. What can you do?

“I didn’t think I had a very good game as coach,” Scotty Bowman said. “We were mixed up early in the game, and some line combinations were off out there.”

Whoa. Did you ever think you’d hear Scotty say that?

Then again, whoever thought you’d have to tell folks from Washington to take more shots?

Caps Capped.

The invisible men

Now, I’d been hearing a lot about Adam Oates and Peter Bondra and Juneau and Richard Zednik. But for the most part Tuesday night, I couldn’t find them. In fact, until their first goal — which came late in the second period — I thought Caps stood for Capsized. If this is what they mean by Capital Offense, it’s no wonder no one gets the death penalty.

I knew these guys were from Washington. I didn’t know they wanted a filibuster.

In the middle of the game, the Caps went 15 minutes without recording a single shot. When they finally got one, it was high and snagged by the glove of Osgood. This woke the Caps up, and they responded by rolling over on their other side and snoozing for another three and a half minutes, when, just to remind people they were here, they put a soft shot on Ozzie’s stick that never had a prayer.

Jeez. Bills in Congress move faster than these guys.

Of course, eventually, all naps have to end, and the Caps woke up with a hard slapper by Zednick that ended Osgood’s playoff shutout streak at 4 2/3 periods. But that would be it for the scoring.

Everything else was about defense.

The Caps averaged 30 shots a game against Buffalo.

This ain’t Buffalo.

“I don’t think we were dominated out there by any means,” Caps coach Ron Wilson said.

It’s true. Washington actually came out with a bit more fire than Detroit. But for the most part, the first 15 minutes were little more than introductory, the hockey equivalent of a wine-and-cheese soiree, very quiet, nothing controversial, the distant echo of a yawn.

Then came Detroit’s secret scoring weapon, that master of offense, Joey
(Money) Kocur, who took a centering backhand pass from Doug Brown and plunked it past Olaf Kolzig for first blood. Kocur now has a nice little streak going. He scored in the first game of last year’s finals. He scored in the first game of this year’s playoffs. And he scored in the first game of this year’s finals. Never mind that he barely scores in between. Never mind that he often doesn’t play in between. He has become Detroit’s playoff maitre d’. He greets opponents at the door, takes their name, and smiles.

Then he makes them pay.

Kocur’s goal unleashed a flood of noise that seemed to wash over the Wings and loosen their joints. They skated more freely, more confidently, and just over two minutes later, Steve Yzerman sent a pass to Nick Lidstrom in his favorite spot, center ice, inside the blue line, and he wound up one of those whizzing slap shots and put it past a slightly screened Kolzig for Goal No. 2.

But that would be it for the Detroit scoring. The rest would be their defense.

It would be enough.

“I don’t mind that there weren’t a lot of shots,” said Osgood, after winning his first career finals appearance. “If they don’t have a lot of shots, it means they can’t score.”

Good point.

Caps Capped.

Glitz off the ice

As for the atmosphere for this long awaited Return-To-Finals-Land? Well, a slight drizzle and a cold breeze greeted the June evening. There was no summer outside, just as there was no summer inside. This was hockey weather. This was a hockey night. And fittingly, for Hockeytown, the whole arena had the feel of a premiere. There was Gov. Engler in a Wings jacket and Wings hat. There was tennis star Anna Kournikova, close friend of Sergei Fedorov, strolling to her seat. There was Gordie Howe flashed up on the big screen to rousing applause. There was even the grizzled face of Johnny Wilson, who used to play here, used to coach here, and now was watching his nephew, Ron, try to rain on the Wings’ parade.

There was the requisite stage and light extravaganza, with a singer lowered from the rafters, and a Darth Vader-like introduction about destiny or something like that. And there was, nicely, another deafening chant of
“OZ-ZIE! OZ-ZIE!” before the national anthem. But once the game got going it was just that, a game, like the others on this long, long postseason road, one the Wings have been navigating slower and more carefully than they did last year.

People looking to compare this series to the one a year ago against Philadelphia will find themselves perpetually coming up short. Let’s face it. Last year, there was a sense of desperation in Detroit, a furious disgust with being a bridesmaid for 42 years. Players weren’t just hungry, they were starving. They walked around like zombies, focused only on the need to quench their thirst. There is no way to imitate that now, any more than you can make a starving novelist feel the same thing as a best-selling author trying to write a second book. That doesn’t mean the effort can’t be excellent, even more admirable. It just can’t be as hungry.

Ask Yzerman, last year’s symbol of Detroit frustration. When the Wings won last year, he gushed in the locker room that, “No matter what happens now, they’ll never be able to say he couldn’t win it all.” In that moment, you saw how there was a second level of motivation on this team, beyond the desire to win a Stanley Cup. It was the desire to belong.

That is not an issue any longer. The Wings already belong. Now they are trying to carve their legend. “It’s true,” Yzerman admitted this week. “I don’t have to battle other people’s doubts or even my doubts, for that matter. Now I can just concentrate on the hockey, on enjoying playing and wanting to win.”

So they may have stretches in this series where the chase is not at fever-pitch. And at times this will bite them in the leg. But the fact is, the Wings are much better at surviving scares now, and just as things may not excite them the same way, things do not scare them either.

“I don’t think we played our best tonight,” Ron Wilson said. “But I’m guessing they didn’t, either.

“We read the papers. We were supposed to get blasted out of here 5-0 or 6-0. It didn’t happen.”

Then again, there’s always Thursday.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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