Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Stanley Lurks; Red Wings Know The Drill

Stanley will be in the building. The Red Wings know the feeling.

Been there, done that.

Four times over the past 11 seasons, in fact.

They know what it's like to try to stay focused and play your game while the object of your affection sits crated somewhere behind the scenes at the rink, ready to burst out.

It's not overstating it to say that tonight's Game Six is literally why you dedicate your life to hockey, if you're a player.

It's why you wake up mom and dad at 5:30 a.m. on a wintry morning and remind them that it's time for hockey practice.

It's why you skate to school.

You heard me.

Red Wings great Steve Yzerman admitted to such, not long after he retired. Seems the path to school in Ontario was so icy that Yzerman, on some mornings, could lace his skates up and glide there before the first bell.

It's why you ride the buses and play in places like Peoria and Moose Jaw and Saskatoon and Hershey, all while keeping the dentists in business.

It's why you, if you're lucky enough to make the NHL, drag yourself to the rink to play the Minnesota Wild on a Thursday night in January when you'd rather just have the day off.

You do all that to have the chance that the Red Wings have tonight: to win another Stanley Cup and declare once again, unequivocally, that it was all worth it.

Coach Mike Babcock clarified something after Game Five's 5-0 win, which gave his team a 3-2 series lead over Pittsburgh.

"Everyone says that when you get to the finals that you have a shot at winning (the Cup)," Babcock said. "But you only really have a shot when you've won three games. We've won three games and now we have a legitimate shot."

Hard to argue with that.

It was my firm belief--even though I picked the Red Wings to win in seven before the series began--that if Detroit won Game Five after the whirlwind, 5-games-in-8-nights schedule, that they would take full advantage of the two days off before Game Six and find a way to win a game in Mellon Arena.

I stand by that.

This isn't Game Six of the Anaheim series, way back in the conference semi-finals, when the Red Wings had a chance to close out the Ducks. They played a shockingly lethargic game, and a late flurry of energy wasn't enough.

They had to dispatch the Ducks in the full complement of games. Indeed, almost the full complement of minutes. Dan Cleary scored the game winner with exactly three minutes to go in regulation time.

No, this isn't like that Anaheim series, because the most treasured trophy in professional sports wasn't lurking backstage, ready to be hoisted.

It says here that the Red Wings, buoyed by the extra rest and the continued improvement of a returning Pavel Datsyuk, will find enough in their tank to finally put these Penguins away in Game Six and win a second straight Cup--both in general and in Mellon Arena.

The Red Wings couldn't have made it more tantalizing than they did last year.

Just over 30 seconds remained in Game Five--Detroit up in the series, 3-1--and the Stanley Cup was literally being polished and about to be wheeled onto the ice at Joe Louis Arena.

I was there, notepad and recorder in hand, ready to zoom down from the press box to the ice, when the Penguins scored and an entire arena got slugged in the gut.

A few hours later, Petr Sykora won the game in triple overtime.

So yes, sometimes it doesn't work out, no matter how much the will and the drive is there.

But the Red Wings, not wanting a Game Seven, took care of the Penguins a couple nights later.

Just like, me thinks, they'll do tonight.

It won't be easy. It shouldn't be, when the stakes are this high.

It shouldn't be easy, when the team you're trying to eliminate is the same team you eliminated last year. It shouldn't be easy, when you're trying to win it--again--in their building, in front of their fans.

It shouldn't be easy, when a member of their team is now a member of yours.

If the Red Wings seal the deal tonight, I expect captain Nick Lidstrom, who has the honors of choosing to whom the Cup gets handed first, to pick Marian Hossa from the crowd of happy players with a "come hither" grin.

Last year it was Dallas Drake, the grizzled, about-to-retire veteran who'd never tasted champagne in an NHL locker room. Lidstrom handed Dally the Cup first, much to Drake's delight.

Hossa, who left the Penguins' pile of money on the table last July and signed a one-year, not-risk-free deal with the Red Wings instead, is another veteran who wants to win a Cup before he perishes.

You know, pretty much like every hockey player in North America, from Alberta to Newfoundland, from Maine to Oregon.

I can't imagine how the Penguins fans will react when they see Hossa, whom they've booed relentlessly all series, skating the Cup around the Mellon Arena ice, wearing a Red Wings jersey.

Stanley is in the building, for the first time in this series. And his travel plans are set, no matter who wins tonight: he's headed for Detroit after the game.

The Red Wings just as soon save the Penguins that trip.

Three's a crowd, after all.

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