The Red Wingsdidn’t lose Game 7 in San Jose on Thursday night; time just ran out on them.
Yes, I’ve just pilfered a line about the great Lions quarterback Bobby Layne. That’s what they used to say about Bobby: “He never lost a football game in his life. Time just ran out on him.”
The parallels between Layne and the newly-exited from the playoffs Red Wings aren’t 100 percent congruent, because the line about Layne referred to his often frantic, frenzied efforts to pull victory from the jaws of defeat on overcast Sunday afternoons.
The Red Wings aren’t often frantic and frenzied because they’re usually the ones leading a series, 3-0—not the other way around.
But their second-round tussle with the Sharks had a lot of silent movie serial about it, once the Red Wings found themselves in that 0-3 hole.
The Sharks’ fourth win was the locomotive coming around the bend. The Red Wings were the gallant ones on the way to rescue the damsel tied to the railroad tracks.
But real life isn’t Tom Mix and Dudley Do-Right when you want it to be. Sometimes those jaws of defeat—no pun intended—slam shut before rescue can come.
I predicted a Game 7 loss, because there’s a reason that only 1.8 percent of NHL playoff series that have begun 3-0 have ended with the zero turning into a four.
Yet, as I watched the Red Wings plug away at the Sharks, the clock winding down and their bench depleted, I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least to see them pop the tying goal behind goalie Antti Niemi, whose name sounds like a laxative.
In fact, I just about expected the Red Wings to knot the game, because that’s how the fourth, fifth and sixth chapters of the series had gone.
And when the puck was finally banked into the Red Wings’ zone in the final seconds—by the much-maligned Patrick Marleau, who scored the eventual game-winning goal—and when the HP Pavilion crowd went bonkers in a reaction that was more “Thank God!” than “Yes! We did it!” I had the same feeling as those who spoke in admiration of Bobby Layne.
The Red Wings didn’t lose, I surmised. That darn clock just ran out on them.
A playoff series win in hockey is never handed to the victor on a silver platter by a man with white gloves named Jeeves. Even the sweeps aren’t easy. You can talk all you want about how pro football is a 60-minute war, played by real men and how the meek never inherit a gridiron’s earth.
There has never been a pro football player post-Charlie Bednarik who has worked as hard on Sunday afternoon as NHL players work in their 60 minutes on the ice. How can they, when they spend gobs of time on the sidelines?
Hockey players pack more into their 45- to 50-second shifts than a lot of athletes do in several minutes’ worth of play. Then the hockey player skates off, gathers his breath and just when he’s done so, he climbs over the boards to skate, hit, check, poke, block, shoot, defend, pass, dig, grind, whack and wrassle, all over again.
The Red Wings turned the series into a dogfight, I am certain, by their maniacal work ethic in the third period of Game 5 in San Jose.
Down 3-1, the Red Wings didn’t out-talent the Sharks, they just outworked them. They won those often overlooked battles for the puck along the boards. They skated harder. They just about willed themselves into a 3-3 tie before Tomas Holmstrom deflected a Nick Lidstrom shot past Niemi for the eventual game-winner.
Game 5 is the one where most of those teams who stave off a sweep come to their demise. The team that zoomed to a 3-0 series lead usually did so for a reason: they’re the better team.
But the Red Wings, to a man, didn’t believe that the Sharks were the better team. At least, that’s what I got out of this series. Their comments after Game 3’s overtime loss belied those of a beaten squad resigning themselves to their fate. The golf course didn’t seem to beckon them.
So they gutted out a Game 4 win, despite surrendering a 3-0 lead. Then came the Mother’s Day tilt in California, where the Red Wings turned the series around right before our very eyes. And still we couldn’t believe it.
When the Sharks went ahead, 3-1, early in the third period, you had the feeling that the remaining time would be a party in the HP Pavilion, like those crowds have at a soccer match. You thought that all you’d hear would be whooping and hollering and all you’d see would be towels waving and the announcers would be previewing a Sharks-Canucks conference final.
The Red Wings refused to be anyone’s chumps.
It was like a switch was flipped, or Popeye’s spinach suddenly kicked in.
When the snow settled, it was a 4-3 Red Wings win and I had the same sensation as when a sleight of hand artist has done something amazing right in front of me at a dinner table.
I wanted to scream at the Red Wings as they skated off the ice, “How did you DO that?”
Then came Game 6 and it was just more maniacal, lose-and-go-home kind of hockey from the boys in red. Even a discouraging Shark goal early in the third period that broke a 0-0 tie didn’t knock the Red Wings off course. If anything, it steeled them. Two quick goals midway through the period put the Red Wings on top, where they belonged, and they held on for a victory that was richly deserved.
Hours later, the Red Wings, already without a 100 percent Johan Franzen—hell, without even a 50 percent Franzen, I’d lay a claim—boarded the plane for San Jose to play a game that was, just days earlier, unthinkable.
In Game 7, a team already depleted lost Todd Bertuzzi and Dan Cleary to concussions. During their frantic attempt at a comeback from a 3-1 deficit, the Red Wings played old school, with 10 forwards, like they used to do back in the day.
When Pavel Datsyuk—speaking of sleight of hand artists—deposited a “Did you see THAT?” backhand past Niemi with about six minutes to play, hockey fans in San Jose and Detroit collectively said, “Here we go again!” and guess which city’s faithful didn’t so much say it as groan it?
But Dudley Do-Right didn’t get there in time. Cinderella watched in agony as the clock struck midnight. Pinocchio was a wooden puppet, after all.
It was a wonderful hockey series, regardless of the outcome—one that will be talked about in these parts for years, decades even.
The Red Wings, old and battered and depleted, their legacy still being written, gave us something that many of us and many nationally didn’t think they had. You’ve heard the rumblings: they’re too satisfied, they don’t have the hunger anymore; four Stanley Cups since 1997, so they don’t have the sense of urgency anymore, certainly not as much as a team like the Sharks, who are still seeking their first Cup.
As my friend Jerry Green would say, Balderdash!
I snickered at those words of psycho-babble, because I know how much players like winning things like Stanley Cups, and how often they speak of wanting to do it as many times as humanly possible.
You think the playoffs come around and multiple winners like the Red Wings suit up and take a “What will be, will be” mentality? These guys LIVE for the playoffs. If it were up to them, the 82-game season would be abolished.
This column is longer than usual, which is fitting because the Red Wings-Sharks series was longer than usual, for one that started with a team leading it 3-0.
When does the bus leave for Traverse City?