Is it Okay to Laugh Yet?

It has been less than a week since the sudden end to the Red Wings’ run to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions. Many Wings fans are still in a little bit of shock. Some are in denial. Some are already looking ahead to next year.

For the second time in three years, Detroit is the victim of a first-round upset. While many of us woke up Thursday morning in mourning, I think most of have come to terms with the fact that the Red Wings’ early playoff demise is not a death. There will be a next year for Detroit.

And maybe by looking ahead to next year or looking back to 2002, we can find a way to laugh about what happened this season.

Within hours of the Red Wings’ Game Four loss to Anaheim, a doctored photo featuring former Iraqi Information Minister Mohammad Saeed al-Sahaf, now famous for declaring that U.S.-led coalition forces were not in Iraq when they were in actuality already on the outskirts of Baghdad, standing in front of Joe Louis Arena appeared on several hockey-themed Internet message boards.

In the photo, the Information Minister is dressed in Red Wings garb and declares, “There was no sweep. The Detroit Red Wings defeated the infidels from Anaheim swiftly and mercilessly. The defense of Curtis Joseph is inpregnable. The Stanley Cup will soon be ours.”

It’s just a game, the Red Wings will be back next year. Fans will deal with this season’s shocking end how they wish, but by now, we should all be able to laugh at that photo.

Early Summer This Year

The Game
Henrik Zetterberg scored the first goal of the game, his first-ever playoff goal, but Steve Rucchin scored the last goal of the game, and that, as it turned out, was the important one. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim completed their quarterfinal sweep of the Red Wings with a 3-2 overtime win.

The Red Wings looked much better to start Game Four than they had looked previously in the series?not completely up to their potential yet, but certainly better. They were driving to the net and trying harder to put the puck high against Jean-Sebastien Giguere, and that extra effort led directly to Zetterberg’s goal late in the first period. Brett Hull stripped Petr Sykora of the puck in the high slot area of Anaheim’s zone. Hull pushed towards the net, and Zetterberg came with him on the right side. Hull made a quick pass across to his linemate, and Zetterberg lifted a quick wrist shot over Giguere.

Confusion on a call let the Ducks tie the game up just under two minutes later. Mathieu Dandenault knew he was about to get a penalty for high-sticking on a delayed call. He looked to have touched the puck, and the other Wings on the ice slowed in anticipation of the whistle, but that whistle didn’t come because Dandenault never actually had possession of the puck. Adam Oates took the puck away, brought it into the zone, and sent it across to Paul Kariya. Kariya had a clear shot on Curtis Joseph and was able to put the puck into the top corner.

The second period was scoreless, although both teams had their chances. The Grind Line brought havoc to the Ducks’ zone, creating multiple quality scoring chances. Rob Niedermayer was so frustrated by Joseph’s excellent saves during an Anaheim power play that he took an ill-advised cross-checking penalty, negating his team’s man-advantage and giving the Red Wings a shortened power play of their own.

Jason Krog scored early in the third period, and the Ducks promptly shut down. The Red Wings still managed to get through to the Ducks’ zone, but rarely were they able to get the screened shots or deflected shots which seemed to be the best way to defeat Giguere. Mathieu Schneider took an interference penalty with just 5:23 left in regulation, further thwarting the Wings’ chances.

Then, with 2:15 left to play, the Red Wings finally got a break. Sergei Fedorov eluded the Ducks who had been dogging his steps all series. He went into the right corner, one on one against Keith Carney, and won the battle for the puck. Fedorov threw it out in front of the net, and it hit the skate of Niclas Havelid. It bounced. It bounced right past Giguere and into the net.

Fedorov played like a man possessed for the rest of regulation time, seeking to win before overtime started, but Giguere regained control of himself and sent the game to the extra session.

At 6:53 of overtime, a little after 1:00 am in Detroit, a little after 10:00 pm in Anaheim, Rucchin scored his series-winning goal. Carney was allowed to take the puck behind the net. He centered it out front to Rucchin, coming up the high slot all alone. Rucchin one-timed the shot up and over Joseph for the win.

Now What?
There could be changes in Detroit this summer. Not drastic ones, surely. But there will be financial considerations, with no further playoff revenue coming to the team. Ticket prices may have to be raised for next year. It may be harder to keep free agents like Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Darren McCarty, Luc Robitaille, and Jason Woolley, and certainly it could be more difficult to lure free agents from other teams.

But these are matters for later. It’s time to rest now, time to carefully roll up the car flags and stow them in the trunk, time to fold the banners and set them gently in the closet for next year. Time to regroup and heal, time for our young rookies to become stronger and time for our veterans to rest their strength.

The 2002-2003 season is over. But Jiri Fischer will be fully healed by fall, and Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Dmitri Bykov show much promise, along with a host of other young prospects who played in the minors or the European leagues this year. The team’s veteran core will remain intact, contributing and teaching. There’s always 2003-2004.

There’s always a next year for Hockeytown.

Hope Springs Eternal In Hockeytown

The naysayers and harbingers of doom are very loud, second-guessing Dave Lewis and Kenny Holland, taking down the red and white that so proudly decorated our city just a week ago, and packing it all in.

“It’s over,” they say. “Cujo isn’t good enough. We should have picked up Belfour. Put the jerseys away, put the car flag in the trunk, and what on earth are we going to do with the leftover octopus?” Or worse yet, telling BRETT HULL, the fifth-leading goal scorer of all time, how to score a goal on Jean-Sebastien Giguere. “You gotta put it high, Brett, you blasted old goat!” (Like someone with over 700 goals needs scoring advice from people who’ve never picked up a hockey stick!)

I was driving around Metro Detroit yesterday on various errands, and I noticed a distinct LACK of red and white, in comparison with this time last year. Not too many car flags. Not too many banners. Not too many “Go Wings” signs on the message boards outside bars. It’s as if people are ashamed and embarrassed to be still cheering for the Red Wings in what the “fans” have already named a losing battle.

Well, I say to you, you SHOULD be ashamed. But you should be ashamed of YOURSELVES! Listen, we as fans have absolutely no control over whether the Wings pull it off tonight or not. We can make voodoo goalies or follow any wacky hockey superstitions we want, but in the end, it’s up to the players themselves. What the fans do have control over is the spirit of Hockeytown. And Hockeytown?the Hockeytown I have come to know and love– is not a place that gives up before the final buzzer sounds.

While I was out driving yesterday, a man on a motorcycle pulled up next to me while I was stopped at a red light. He had two Wings flags hanging off the back of his bike, and his long hair had red and white ribbons braided into it. He looked over at me, saw my car flag and my own red and white ribbons, and we smiled. A quick thumbs-up. Then the light turned green and we were off about our business.

The poll right here on DetroitHockey.net shows that 75% of respondents believe that the Wings will pull it off and win four straight. Admittedly, only eight people have taken the poll. But for a larger slice of Hockeytown, try the recent poll on the Red Wings’ official site, DetroitRedWings.com. Now, they’ve just changed to a new question, and I can’t get the exact numbers for you since they don’t archive their polls, but over 2000 respondents still believed the Wings would win the series, compared to about 1300 people who thought the Ducks would put them away tonight.

So it looks like the true fans outnumber the fair-weather fans. The fair-weather fans are just louder and more obnoxious.

It’s 1:30 pm. Nine hours to go. So what if only two teams in history have rallied from an 0-3 deficit? One of those teams was the New York Islanders against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1975. Dave Lewis was on that team! Coach Al Arbour told them then to take it one shift at a time, one period at a time. Lewi knows how it can be done! So what if the Wings haven’t been scoring? Tomas Holmstrom showed them how to do it late in Game Three?park in front of the net and chip the puck high. Do you think this is a team that will let Homer get bruised and battered in front of the net for nothing? So what if you think Joseph hasn’t been good enough? Here’s what I think of that opinion: Joseph’s goals against average in the playoffs is 1.89. His save percentage is .925. Those are not numbers that can be faulted. “Goaltending is not an issue,” according to no less an authority than Steve Yzerman. “You’re going in the wrong direction if you’re looking at that.”

The Captain had plenty more to say. “I’m confident we can win the next game,” Yzerman said. “It’s not like I’m doubting my team or we’re doubting ourselves. I’m perfectly comfortable coming into Game 4 and confident in our team that we’ll play well and we’ll win the game.”

If Steve Yzerman, future-hall-of-famer, the man who battled back from an unprecedented knee surgery to play again, warrior and leader extraordinaire, is confident, that’s good enough for me. One shift at a time, one period at a time, one goal at a time, one game at a time.