Living To Play Once More: Our Red Wings Rise Again

Moments To Savor:

If you’re a Red Wings fan, and by that I mean a REAL fan … if you’re one of us who practically lives and dies with the team at this time each year, not one who can shrug — win or lose — and get on with your life … you may agree that their performance in the third period of Game 5 with San Jose Sunday night qualifies as one of the greatest performances by any Red Wings team of the modern era.

There’s been a sense in this series, since it opened with those two one-goal losses on the road, that the Wings have been competing with Jimmy Howard … and half a team . That feeling was confirmed Friday night when … even in defeating the Sharks 4-3 at home to stave off a four-game sweep … the club continued to play in untraditional style … giving up a 3-0 lead, playing a horrific second period, and needing an uncharacteristic lightning strike in the final moments of that game to survive.

But they staggered on, flying back to San Jose for the fifth game, thanks to Darren Helm’s gutsy overtime-type goal with 87 seconds left to play.

These are not the Red Wings we’ve known and loved since 1997, not the club we’ve been accustomed to over recent years. And it again looked like curtains for our guys in Game 5 when San Jose went up 2-0 late in the second, and then 3-1 early in the third. Sharks fans, I mean REAL Sharks fans (imagine loving a team with little history to recall and no accomplishments worth celebrating) had ample reasons to anticipate facing Vancouver or Nashville (now THOSE are teams with storied pasts) in the next round.

What reasons?

Pavel Datysuk, a magic man since he showed up here in 2001, had apparently re-injured the wrist he broke earlier in the season. He was skating and passing like a demon but seemingly doing so on one arm. A man needed badly against the Sharks — a team of very large though seemingly empty-headed fellows — was the Wings’ singular power forward and gunner, “Mule” Franzen. But his left leg had failed him, and he proved useless in Game 5 almost from the get-go. Another local hero, Hank Zetterberg, seemed to be playing at partial speed, perhaps laboring on his recently wounded knee. Our top guns were hurting; their backups were losing battles on the boards and fading in the corners.

Such problems loomed heavy, boding ill, late in Game 5. But there’s something about hockey, isn’t there? Something strange and potentially wonderful. Something unlike any other sport. Because against those difficulties, and against all odds, our Red Wings played one of their greatest games — make that one of their greatest periods — of modern times to force a Game 6 back here Tuesday night.

The Red Wings have been so powerful over the years, that when they’ve won … ‘97, ‘98, ‘02, and ‘08 … they’ve won big. They rarely needed to fight like mad, or force amazing turnarounds, to do so. The last Red Wings playoff comeback I could recall that felt like the third period of Game 5 was the electric semi-final game against Chicago at the Olympia in 1966. Trailing 2-1 in that tight game with about three minutes to play, Red Wing forward Dean Prentice made two lightning-flash attacks on the Chicago net, scoring back-to-back goals to wrap up the game 3-2, and the series 4 games to 2. That crowd was the loudest I ever heard at the Olympia, going back to my first attendance there in 1957.

Sunday night’s game in San Jose stirred a similar buzz. As I said, “Moments To Savor”:

— Pavel Datsyuk. His play on the go-ahead fourth goal was one for the ages. Flying back on his wing in the Sharks’ zone, he picked Patrick Marleau’s pocket, hooking the puck off his stick. Turning back towards the net with it, he had Marleau come roaring up behind to return the favor. Pavel shook him off with a low deke, circled back and fed Nik Lidstrom at the point … who fired the shot heard ‘round Hockeytown. It was deflected by Homer Holmstrom, and the Wings had come all the way back. Datsyuk’s amazing stick work and determination were of the kind, as Mickey Redmond would have said, that hung Marleau’s jockstrap from the clock in the arena.

— Niklas Kronwall. Meatheaded Sharks forward Ryane Clowe had been itching … just ITCHING … for revenge on Kronwall. Really dumb hockey players are driven insane by clean body checks, and Kronwall had laid a beauty on Shark Dany Heatley here in Detroit. How dare he? Clowe began his noble search for “justice” by pounding a handcuffed and surprised Justin Abdelkader after the final buzzer of Game Four. Clowe then announced to the world that he wished it had been Kronwall he had been slugging, and bragged — all weekend — that he would do exactly that in Game 5. Poor Nik. Well, there was a beating, all right, a violent one. With about 1:30 left in the second period, Kronwall skated up on the unsuspecting Clowe as he charged up ice, head down, in front of the Sharks bench. Kronwall knocked Clowe into next week. It was a corker, one for the ages, worthy of Vladdy Konstantinov. And exactly what a jerk like Clowe deserved. At last word he was still looking for the number of the bus that hit him. (It was 55.)

— Jimmy Howard. I mentioned that the Wings usually didn’t need to play from behind in their glory years. Neither have they needed to be saved by their goalie in the good times … until now. And Howard, again Sunday as he had earlier in the series, repeatedly gave his teammates a chance to win with his brilliant play. Dominik Hasek was never better. Nor needed as much.

— Henrik Zetterberg. Talk about guts and determination. #40 threw his body at the puck when the Sharks brought it into the Wings end on their final charge, and was able to swipe it all the way into the San Jose end, running the clock down to 2.9 seconds on a great icing play. He missed the open goal, but wasn’t looking to score, just to turn back the San Jose charge. A great player, rising to a big occasion.

It was typical of the grit and character that he has shown … that Datysuk and Howard and Lidstrom and Helm and Franzen and so many have given us this time. I don’t know if the Wings can win this round, in fact I have to doubt that they will … I don’t think they have the health or legs to do so. But the victory they gutted our Sunday night goes down in Red Wings history. I found it as stirring, and memorable, as any in recent memory…in fact, it was MORE rewarding than some of the Cup-clinching games they have won in the past.

The Wings are no longer the dynamic and dominant club of old, and may not be again for decades to come. If Sunday proves to have been a last gasp of a classic club … playing as much on pride and prayer as on the talent they once flashed across the entire hockey world … they did themselves, and their city, and us … their REAL fans, the long-sufferers … wonderfully proud.

What a thrill it has been, what an opportunity, what a gift … to witness the modern history of the Detroit Red Wings.