Tuesday, June 3, 2008

35 seconds.

Hey, did you hear? There's a hockey game Monday night. Scratch that, a coronation!

Well, that's what was supposed to happen. Apparently the Penguins didn't get that memo.

For the first 22 minutes and 54 seconds of Game 5, the Red Wings were terrible. The first period tonight was the worst period of hockey they've played in this postseason, and they were deservedly down 2-0 because of it. And then at 2:54 of the 2nd, Darren Helm got the Wings on the board, and the obviously jittery Wings found their legs.

And the shooting gallery began.

They finally broke through and tied it in the 3rd, and a few minutes later went ahead 3-2. They were dominating every aspect of the game, and the coronation was on. The fans at the Joe smelled blood. In a small room tucked away in the Joe, Lord Stanley's Cup was removed from her case and polished, ready to be busted out on the ice for the celebration. All across the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan, champagne and other assorted liquids of various tastes and colors were taken off ice and prepared in anticipation of a party six years in the making. Nothing is greater in sports than a home team celebrating a championship in front of their own fans, nothing. None of them will ever speak of it publicly, but every captain in the NHL has that desire deep down: he wants to hoist the Cup in front of his own fans. He wants to go deaf when he hoists that 35 pound behemoth over his head.

And tonight, the Red Wings were 35 seconds away from getting their hands on that 35 pound piece of glory.

And it slipped away.

I'm not here to play the blame game. I could. It's one of my favorite games, and I'm very good at it. I could blame Zetterberg for trying to get cute with it at center ice in the final minute instead of just dumping it. I could blame Rafalski for simply shooting it around the boards when he had a legitimate opportunity to put it in the open net. I could blame Franzen for that lazy excuse of a clearing attempt that didn't even come close. On a side note, why was Franzen out there anyway? In a situation where the other team has six skaters and their season is on the line, you treat it like a penalty kill, and Franzen is not a penalty killer.

But no, I'm not going to be vindictive and place the blame on any one person. And I'm not going to be a hypocrite and assail the referees. I think any reasonably minded person would agree that there were some terrible calls, but when the one call they got RIGHT produces the goal that beats you, it's hard to bitch about the refs, although I am praying that Devorski and O'Halloran fall ill with avian flu.

For the past hour or so I've dodged calls from more than five of my friends. I have no idea what they wanted to say to me, I haven't checked my voicemail. I'm sure it was some mixture of fatalism and wanting to know what I think.

The truth is, I don't know what to think.

Nobody does.

There's no way to tell how this will affect the Red Wings. This has the potential to be a devastatingly crippling defeat. Spirits are obviously low after a triple overtime loss in a game you had won in the final minute on your home ice with the Cup on the line. What matters is how they respond to this. They have to go back to that snakepit in Pittsburgh now. Osgood looked awful tonight. He didn't look confident at all at any point during the game. How will the legs of the older players bounce back after a 3OT marathon?

But more importantly...what does this mean for Pittsburgh?

The #1 rule of fighting (well, maybe it's #1...it SHOULD be #1) is to never let an opponent up off the mat. When he's down, you have to pound him into submission.

Well, tonight the Red Wings let the Penguins off the mat to fight another day.

The coronation was there. The Cup was out, the champagne was probably being placed in the middle of the locker room, the guys guarding the boxes of championship t-shirts and hats like secret service agents guarding the nuclear football were probably busting out pocketknives to cut open the boxes in preparation of passing out the gear. Guys like Michael Rosenberg and Mitch Albom and Drew Sharp and Wojo and Chris McCosky all had their columns ready to submit to their editors, crowning Detroit's newest champion.

And in the blink of an eye, with 35 seconds left, everything stopped.

Make no mistake, this was Grade A brutal, folks. This is the kind of thing that can haunt you as a fan for years. If the unthinkable happens and Pittsburgh comes all the way back to win this damn thing, unless Game 7 is anywhere close to this, this is the game that will have you waking up in a cold sweat. This game will replace the Rose Bowl against Texas, or Game 5 against the Spurs, or Game 5 against the Avalanche, or Game 5 against the Ducks, or Game 5 against the Cavaliers. (What the hell is it with Game Fives?!?!?) If the worst happens, this is the game people will be talking about 10 years from now, remembering how the Wings were 35 seconds away.

The Wings let them off the hook. It's now their job to put this behind them. The pressure of not just winning but dominating at home got to them tonight. That pressure is gone. But the pressure of putting this nightmare behind them is front and center now.

I keep thinking of some witty phrase to conclude this post, but I've got nothing. If it wasn't about to storm outside, I'd still be out wandering the neighborhood ignoring my phone. I hate that, too. I hate ignoring my friends.

Don't give me another reason to ignore my friends, Wings.

(How was that?)

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