Hokay now … let’s see, where was I? Before I was interrupted by the St. Louis Blues (10) and the Red Wings (3) … when I was writing recently about anticipation of the Stanley Cup Playoffs … and describing the jitters that come with these nerve-wracking games every spring?
Oh … I had stated that “the best and worst time of the hockey season is at hand. The …. Playoffs offer an annual combination of the most satisfying excitement and the worst pain a sports fan can feel over a compact period of time.”
Thank heaven and the hockey gods that the Wings got their train back on the tracks over this past weekend, following the St. Louis Massacre, with two important victories within 24 hours from Saturday night through Sunday afternoon. Most impressive was the team’s showing against the rapidly advancing Nashville Predators. With the hockey world watching to see if the Red Wings’ surprising tailspin was the real deal .. the team fell behind 3-0 (which had them trailing by 13 to 3 in goals scored in a game and a half) before staging a rousing comeback that ended in a crucial 4-3 overtime victory.
What was best about the game was that the Wings were outplaying Nashville even as they trailed (bad breaks and absurd officiating); and that two unexpected heroes — Todd Bertuzzi and Justin Abdelkader — threw the team on their backs and refused to let them lose that game. Bertuzzi — and wouldn’t you love to see him do it more often? — twice punched out an annoying Preds defenseman, and Abdelkader led the way with big hits and two huge goals to get the Wings back to winning ways.
That the team survived the Blues scare with that key performance and a typically workmanlike victory over Minnesota Sunday cooled a lot of fevered fans around town, starting with me. My point had been that in anticipating the Playoffs we need to prepare for some emotional roller-coastering. I hadn’t expected to see it begin two weeks and seven games before season’s end.
Let’s hope that the unexpected heroics from Bertuzzi and Abdelkader signal similar surprises when the Playoffs begin next week. Historically, when the Wings have been successful in Stanley Cup play they’ve been boosted by atypical efforts. The last time the Red Wings won the Cup in Game 7 sudden death overtime was 1954, when defensive forward Tony Leswick — who stood about four-foot-two (yup, even in skates) — beat the hated Montreal Canadiens at Detroit’s Olympia with a fluke knuckleball shot from near the boards.
Over the years, similar ‘role’ players have stood out for the team at crunch time. I recall listening on radio in 1960 to a tense playoffer against Toronto that was won in OT by the Wings Gerry Melnyk (yes, Virginia, there WAS a Gerry Melnyk). Good old Melnyk.
You’ll surely recall that it was grinder Darren McCarty who — in the offensive play of his life — scored the clinching goal against the Flyers in 1997, dancing across the Joe Louis ice like Fred Astaire. Other Red Wings surprise standouts who rose to Stanley Cup challenges included Martin Lapointe, Doug Brown, Joey Kocur, Vlady Konstantinov, Igor Larionov, Kris Draper — all solid players, to be sure. But at playoff time, when we’ve placed our hopes on stars of the calibre of Yzerman, Federov, Shanahan … it’s often been the unexpected heroes who have stolen the show. Just as Bertuzzi and Abdelkader did Saturday.
The best example might be former Wings defenseman Fredrik Olausson. Remember when he popped an overtime beauty against Colorado in a nail-biting series about a decade ago? Boy, it was fun to beat those SOBs, especially in OT. Especially in Colorado.
There’s one classic, and famous, local exception to the Surprise Playoff Hero scenarios. As a kid I began noting that in virtually every playoff series played by the Wings in the 1950s and ’60s, not only were there key goals scored by superstar Gordie Howe … but that Gordie was responsible for winning at least one game in each Red Wings’ post-season endeavor. It was uncanny. On Detroit teams good or mediocre, in every series, Gordie would take over a game and pull the Wings to victory. Our guys might have gone down 4 games to 1, but that lone victory would see #9 control the outcome as First Star.
I know it’s a non-scientific and debatable claim, but I always kept track, and he always came through. Offense, defense, special teams … Howe commonly played 35 minutes or more–unheard of today–and was all over the ice. Just the other day, I saw an old wirephoto of the Wings celebrating a first-round elimination victory over Chicago in the early ‘60s. I think they won 4-2, and it showed coach Sid Abel hugging star Gordie Howe, who had a goal and two assists in the Wings victory. I’m telling you, he was good for at least ONE Red Wings victory in virtually ever playoff series in two decades time.
I can think of no other player, in hockey history. of whom that could be said.
So I’ll be going nuts and biting my — and other people’s — nails again this year, and hoping like mad that our Red Wings … stars, role players, whoever … can do it for us one more time. Boy, do we need it now.
And oh yes. For the record, I was joking. Playoff hero Tony Leswick, the “Mighty Mite” of the 1950s, was listed at five-foot-six, though the ‘word’ was that he was an inch or two smaller. The Canadiens, especially Rocket Richard, hated him intensely, so much so that they stormed off the ice, refusing to shake hands with the Red Wings, when Leswick’s shot won the ‘54 Cup.
Ahh. Bad blood. Poor sportsmanship. Victory for the Wings. Now that’s … old-time hockey.