Monday, May 01, 2006

First Round Peril Nothing New For Red Wings

Just keep the Red Wings out of Goose Loonies, and they should be okay.

You remember Goose Loonies, don't you? That's the Edmonton-area bar that several key Red Wings players were spotted, enjoying a few pops, into the wee hours prior to an elimination game in the 1988 playoffs. Some say that the partying contributed to the team's defeat in Game 5 the next night. It was even suggested that the Goose Loonies incident confirmed the loss of control over the team that coach Jacques Demers was beginning to exhibit. Demers was fired two years later.

Those were different teams, of course. In '88, the Oilers were the hunted, and the Red Wings were just starting to sow their playoff oats. Edmonton would go on to win their second straight Stanley Cup and fourth in five seasons.

But those were the Oilers of Gretzky, Messier, Coffey, and Kurri. And they were playing the Red Wings of Yzerman, Probert, Gallant, and Veitch.

One of those eight players, as we all know, is still kicking it. But how much longer he does so will be determined largely by what happens tonight in Alberta.

We don't know if Steve Yzerman will suit up and give it a shot tonight in Game 6 of the Wings' first-round series with the Oilers, another opening rounder that's looking ghoulishly like first-round series of years gone by. It does seem to be all-or-nothing with this team, doesn't it?

First round exit, 2001.

Stanley Cup, 2002.

First round exit, 2003.

Second round exit, 2004.

Okay, so maybe mostly nothing, lately.

But back to Yzerman. He's once again classified as a "game time decision." And I hate to burst your bubble, but those kinds of decisions usually go the way of exclusion rather than inclusion. Unless the situation is deemed super-duper desperate -- which this one would seem to be.

But Yzerman cannot play goal, and as much as I hate to be populist here, it always begins in net, in the playoffs. And Manny Legace just hasn't done enough to give his team an opportunity to seize control in any of these games. There was a 50-foot wrist shot in Game 2. A silly wraparound in Game 3. Two five-hole goals in Game 4. And a muff in Game 5. It's all a lot to overcome. If you think about Legace's counterpart, Dwayne Roloson, you think of goals that he legitimately had little chance of stopping. When you think of Legace, you start to have thoughts that look like those cartoon characters' curse words: #!$#!!

So here we are -- seeing our hockey team on the brink of eilimination.

The rest of the team needs to follow the marketing geniuses and their "Bring It!" slogan, as well. In '04, it was a miserably feeble performance in Game 5 at home that set the table for the Red Wings' ouster at the hands of Calgary. Saturday, it was a miserably feeble performance in Game 5 at home that sets the table for their ouster at the hands of Edmonton.

Maybe it wasn't Dave Lewis, after all.

Speaking of the coach, where's that playoff magic that Mike Babcock had in 2003, when he led his team to the Finals -- a postseason that included a first-round sweep of Detroit? Apparently that only works if you're the underdog.

Just once, I'd like to see the Red Wings enter the playoffs as an also-ran -- a team that nobody seriously thinks can win the Stanley Cup. Hasn't happened since 1991, really. Ever since then, it's been year after year of high expectations -- the highest, in most years. And there have been three Cups, so it doesn't always end unhappily. But wouldn't it be fun to be the hunter again? The team that can play footloose and fancy free, with no pressure from an entire city and state?

But this is what you get, thanks to those damn 58 regular season wins and unmitigated success in the "first" season. You reap what you sow, and the Red Wings, with their snazzy 124 points, put themselves in the position of "Stanley or Bust", and now must play the best two playoff games in recent memory just to survive long enough to meet the Colorado Avalanche in the second round. The Avs upset the second-seeded Dallas Stars in five games, so they won't go gently into the night, either. But then, they never do when they play Detroit.

Yzerman, whether he plays or not, should be motivation enough for his teammates to extend these playoffs as long as possible. Just as nobody wanted to see the Captain's career end two years ago today, a bloodied towel held to his face -- thanks to a shot that smacked into his eye -- neither does anyone want to see it end tonight, on a sheet of ice in Edmonton, with Yzerman perhaps in the press box. He's probably all tapped out in the comeback department.

Will it end tonight, on the road? The Red Wings set a league record for most road wins in a season.

In the regular season.

So, natch, it doesn't mean a thing.

Or does it?

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