In the cramped, sterile environment, the visitors whooped it up, sweaty with puffed lips and without a care in the world. Their season could have ended right then and there, and that probably would have been OK with them.

Over in the expansive, more luxurious home dressing room, a 21-year-old goaltender sat in front of his locker, uniform still on. He was also sweaty, but it wasn’t his lips that were puffy. It was his eyes. Puffy and red, stinging with real tears.

Chris Osgood anguished, the weight of an entire hockey nation on his shoulders, as he tried to describe the feeling after the third-year San Jose Sharks stole Game 7 from the mighty Red Wings in the 1994 playoffs, first round. For it was Osgood’s gaffe, a bad clearing attempt, that was converted into the series-winning goal with about six minutes remaining.

Osgood wept, yet the weight he felt was largely self-acquired. Even the fuming Red Wings fans, who in ’94 were getting used to playoff disappointment, were reluctant to pin the series loss on the rookie goalie. Instead, their anger was directed toward the circumstances under which Osgood was in net to begin with — a rookie in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Red Wings, suffering through an internal power struggle between GM Bryan Murray and coach Scotty Bowman, had a question mark in goal — or so they thought, mainly because everyone else told them so. Tim Cheveldae was the sacrificial lamb, traded to Winnipeg (Murray made the trade without really consulting Bowman) for former MSU star Bob Essensa, in January 1994. But Essensa wasn’t much of an improvement (if at all), so when the playoffs began, Essensa was the starter, but he was on shaky ground.

By the time Game 7 against the Sharks arrived, Osgood was deemed the man to give the Wings their best chance at victory — more of an indictment against Essensa than a star on Osgood’s forehead. Still, the rookie played OK, but made that tragic mistake late in the deciding game.
And he had taken the loss so hard, those around him wondered how much of an effect it would have on him as his career progressed.

Last week, watching the Wings toil out west sometime past the 11 o’clock hour, a graphic was flashed on the screen. It listed active goalies and their career victories. Dominik Hasek had something like 374. No surprise there. But just below Hasek, with 337, was the 34-year-old Chris Osgood.

Yes, young, sobbing Chris Osgood grew up to have almost as many wins as Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek.

Osgood is the Wings’ backup now, and will perhaps play in 25-30 games this season. He’ll turn 35 in November. Yet whenever I see him, I still see the baby-faced, boyish kid that I saw back in 1994. He hasn’t changed much, including his speaking style. But when you listen to him now, what creeps in is the sageness of an NHL career that is now 14 years old. He’s not a quote machine, but he’s wise. And his countenance hasn’t budged; not too high after success, not too low after disappointment.

The Red Wings pulled off a pretty unique stunt in 1998. They won two straight Stanley Cups, and with two different starting goalkeepers. Doing the former is hard enough; when you add the latter, it’s damn near unheard of. And in ’98, Osgood, the starter, played with the typical brilliance that’s needed to win the whole thing. Most of the time. He also had a fetish for letting in goals that were the results of shots taken somewhere near center ice; he did so at least three times that postseason — once each in series against St. Louis, Phoenix, and Dallas. All three were crucial, killer goals. Only one, in St. Louis, were the Wings able to overcome. The Dallas blunder came in OT in Game 5.

Yet after each of these horrific goals, Osgood wasn’t rattled. He said so, then he played like it. Every time, in the next game, he played magnificently.

In the official team video for 1998, there’s a scene of the happy Wings dressing room following their Cup-clinching win in Washington. Osgood’s mother seeks him out, and hugs him close.

“You DID it, Chris! You DID it!,” she says through tears. Tears of joy, this time. No doubt the ghosts of 1994 were in both their minds at that moment.

If Hasek’s groin should go pop, or any other part of his aging body, then the Wings will turn to still baby-faced Chris Osgood, sage veteran. Cup winner. Author of 337 wins.

How many backups in the league have such a resume?

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