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

It was every suspense film you ever watched, every thriller you ever read, every nervous waiting room you ever sat in all rolled into one nail-biting, double-overtime evening at Joe Louis Arena, 19,000 exhausted fans, tapping their chests at every break to make sure the old ticker was still working.

And finally, a few minutes before midnight, the doctor emerged, smiling with the good news:

It’s a goal!

“YES! YES! YES!” the fans screamed, when Steve Yzerman put an end to the most dramatic playoff game here in years, whacking a 55-foot shot past the seemingly inpenetrable Jon Casey to win Game 7 of this second-round series, 1-0. The crowd erupted like an uncorked volcano, and Yzerman himself was actually lifted into the air by the force of his own exuberance, running and cheering as his skates never touched the ice.

It’s a goal!

Breathe again.

“I don’t usually score that way,” Yzerman said sheepishly, after the goal Thursday that ended this agonizing series, one in which the Wings blew a lead, nearly fell off the cliff and fought back to take the final two games. “It’s the kind of goal every player dreams about in his career. Including me.”

“Had you ever scored in double-overtime before?” he was asked.

“Never,” he said.

“Did you get the puck?”

He smiled. “I got the puck.”

Well. How could he not? What a finish! What a perfect end! A night that desperately called for a hero got the call from the perfect cast member, the captain himself, a guy who has been waiting for this night longer than anyone on the roster, and has been playing recently as if the last lights of his life hung in the scoreboard. Even the opposing coach, Mike Keenan, called him
“the best player in the series.” And just seconds before his miracle goal, he’d set up a perfect chance for teammate Sergei Fedorov, putting the puck in front of the net. But Fedorov slapped it into Casey and was denied, as were 38 shots before his.

Yzerman figured “do it yourself.”

A few seconds later, he did, whacking a high, stinging shot that hit the crossbar with a “ping” and fell in behind a startled Casey.

It’s a goal!

Breathe again. It’s pure torture

“Anyone who doubted the character of this team should think again after tonight,” said forward Kris Draper, smiling among his happy but exhausted teammates in the Wings’ locker room.

Indeed, it was a game teams that want championships have to win. It began frantically, with the Wings playing like soldiers on their first day in combat, shooting at anything that moves. The crowd rose and roared with each attack, expecting perhaps a high-scoring finale. But while the Wings chalked up 14 shots to the Blues’ four, few were quality efforts, and those few were weakly hit or just a fraction of a second too late to beat Casey. Igor Larionov came close, hitting a post, and Yzerman had a chance at a puck that Casey lost sight of, but the goalie found it before the captain did. The period ended scoreless, and one chunk of someone’s last evening of the season was over.

The second period, for Detroit fans, was like the second stage of torture. The Wings did everything but pick up the building and tilt the puck in. They pressured, banged, fought in corners, whacked shots and whacked rebounds, and the moment the puck came out of the St. Louis end, they went and took it back and came storming in again. There was a stretch where some of the Detroit’s grittier and less famous names — Martin Lapointe, Marc Bergevin — joined Slava Kozlov and Keith Primeau in a desperate and magnificent surge, for a solid minute they were keeping the puck in the St. Louis end, slamming everything, firing, reloading, firing again, and the crowd rose spontaneously to its feet, cheering the effort. If trying hard could win a championship, it would have been over at that moment.

Trying is only half the battle.

So by the time the third period began, the score was 0-0, but it was not a tie game. The Blues seemed lighter, and the Wings were weighed down by expectations. I have always believed that Joe Louis Arena is as much of a hindrance as a help in the playoffs, because you can feel the 41 years of disappointment on every close play, it’s like skating around with a pack of rocks on your back. This might explain why the Wings had lost two Game 7s in the last three years — both at home.

But these are not your old Wings.

“This was as relaxed an overtime game as I can remember playing, as far as the players were concerned,” Yzerman said. “We just felt we were going to win, and we said, ‘Come on, let’s get it done.’ “

When in doubt, go to the captain, right?

It’s a goal.

Breathe again. What we learned

Now, the purist will say the Wings should never have been in this position, that the Blues were a sub-.500 team with an aging superstar (Wayne Gretzky) that didn’t have any business dangling the Wings over the edge of a cliff. And they are right — from a purist point of view. But what in life works so purely? Sports fans in Detroit might remember that the year the Pistons won their first title, they had to go to final game against the lowly Washington Bullets in a best-of-five series. A few weeks later, they were sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers for the crown. Go figure.

The fact is, sometimes things go wrong, and sometimes things go right, and sometimes things go right but take an awfully long time to do so. A few very important things came out of this long series: 1) The Wings know what it’s like to hang over the edge and pull themselves back up. 2) Chris Osgood is officially The Goalie — and officially a hot goalie. (Think about it, he basically played shutout hockey for the last seven periods, excluding one 59-second stretch. He was as brilliant as he was calm.) And 3) Yzerman, the captain, has moved up a notch to the level of Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and others; namely, he’s the guy to lead the way when the biggest games are on the line. In years past, he hasn’t always had the chance, sometimes because of injuries, sometimes because the team was eliminated too quickly.

No doubts now. They disappeared with his two goals in Game 2, his hat trick in Game 3 and his closing number just before midnight, the pinging shot heard around the hockey world.

It’s a goal. Hail to St. Louis

A word about to the Blues, who seemed to find themselves late last week, in the overtime period of Game 3, when Igor Kravchuk intercepted a clearing pass and smacked the puck past Mike Vernon for the victory. “How about that?” they seemed to say. “We can beat these guys.”

Before that, they were members of the chorus; after that, they were stars of the show. And Thursday night, when they could have skated out and fallen over, they stood tall. They fought off the Wings’ attack, and made the building shake every time they had a shot on goal. Casey, who was supposed to be nearly useless from a bad neck — yeah, and I’m Wilt Chamberlain — played his typical smart game in the net, turning back shots from every Red Wings star and a few less- famous names who kept coming and coming and coming. It seems as if the Wings are always running up against a hot goalie in the playoffs. Just once, I’d like to see a cold goalie. You know, a guy who lets five goals go past each night. Is there such a person? Does he ever play against the Wings?

Ah, well. The Blues are history now. There is a team from Colorado to deal with. But before we move onto that series, remember the words of Yzerman, the captain, before Game 7. He encouraged the fans — as well as his teammates

— to keep in mind this is a sport, and to “relax and have fun.”

Once we start breathing again, we can do that.

“What were you thinking the moment you saw that red light go on?” Yzerman was asked.

“Honestly?” he answered. “I thought, ‘It went in? No way!’ “


On we go.


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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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