Wings staring at end of era

Updated: May 4, 2004, 4:11 AM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Monday's Game 6 was about far more than the end of a series.

The end of a season.

The 1-0 Detroit loss in overtime was about the possible end of an era.

Steve Yzerman is out indefinitely after suffering an eye injury in Game 5.
All that they have, all that they've been, all that they still aspire to be were on the line tonight at the Pengrowth Saddledome when the Red Wings, minus Steve Yzerman, hunkered down to fight for their playoff lives.

The second-round ouster by a clearly inferior opponent, coupled with last season's numbing sweep in the first round by the upstart Anaheim Mighty Ducks, should signal a significant change in Motor City. Trades. Retirements.

Firings.

The injured Yzerman. Brendan Shanahan. The injured Chris Chelios. Brett Hull. Curtis Joseph. You wonder what the immediate future will hold in store for them and others after the mighty Wings toppled this evening.

Tonight, when the cold steel of the muzzle was pressed up against the temple, was when that huge library of playoff knowledge, over 2,000 games worth, accumulated over all the joys and sorrows, the sweat and pain of all the years, should have made a difference for Detroit.

As in the earlier games, however, it meant squat.

The best team that pizza baron Mike Ilitch's money can buy was outhustled, outworked and outthought yet again by a ragtag group patched together on less than half the budget and fused only by a sense of belief in each other, a stellar goaltender with too many vowels in his first name and a rabid pack mentality.

Will won out over skill.

"The thing is, people still don't believe they're a very good team," protested Darren McCarty earlier in the series. "They play for each other. They exude confidence. They've got complete faith in their goalie, they believe and they've got a nothing-to-lose attitude.

"Nobody had to tell us how hard this would be."

Take his word for it. The Wings might've actually understood. But someone might have needed to remind them again. Together, these men have combined to make history. Suddenly, they are history.

"I have never -- never -- been associated with or seen a bunch of guys who respond so well when challenged," said a defiant Shanahan in the buildup to the Flames' astounding upset of the Presidents' Trophy-winning, Stanley Cup-worthy Red Wings. "This is a team with a tremendous amount of pride."

The idea of a last hurrah has hung like a dark cloud over the Winged Wheel for a while now. There was conjecture that the shock exit last spring would signal a shift in philosophy, and thus personnel. But the Wings decided to stand pat, convinced they still had what it took. They added a stud defenseman in Derian Hatcher. Dominik Hasek returned from the Czech Republic. They piled up the most points in the league, again. And the world seemed once more to be their oyster.

At the moment, it looks as if the oyster brought on a severe bout of food poisoning.

"We've lived with that a long time," replied McCarty, when asked about the inevitable disbanding of this great team. "It's become almost second nature to us. But the nearer it comes, when you sit down and think about it, yeah, it hits home."

The Wings continually talked of matching Calgary's insatiable work ethic, but outside of a Game 4 grinder at the Saddledome and a solid -- but ultimately insufficient -- effort in Game 6, that's all it was. Talk. Miikka Kiprusoff, the silent Finn, got far the better of the goaltending battle, mano-a-mano against Joseph. The Wings talked of creating more traffic than can be found in the Windsor/Detroit international tunnel on a civic holiday, yet Kiprusoff stymied them.

Shanahan played one noticeable game. Yzerman, before his frightening eye injury on Saturday afternoon, the same. And that's one more than Hull, who, depending on your information source, is either A) injured; or B) sulking because coach Dave Lewis has slashed his ice time. Whatever, he was almost nonexistent, and for someone who has played the game with so much joy for so many years, seems a decidedly unhappy fellow at the moment.

Nicklas Lidstrom continued to play a ton, and well. Pavel Datsyuk was held largely in check, but he competed. So, too, did Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom. Kirk Maltby was harder for Jarome Iginla to shake than his shadow in the sunshine. Kris Draper was the best Wing, bar none. Fast and indefatigable.

It wasn't enough.

Against an opponent too young or too naive enough to know its betters, the Wings struggled to find a flow. Outside of the 5-2 pasting Detroit laid on the Flames in Game 2 at The Joe, this series was played on Calgary terms -- down in the pit, ugly, scrappy, tight and tough.

As unthinkable as it might seem, the prohibitive underdogs won the series despite not receiving much production from their one superstar -- Iginla. He had one goal. So, by the way, did Marcus Nilson. And villainous Ville Nieminen. And Robyn Regehr. And a bunch of other guys a lot of hockey fans couldn't pick out of a police lineup.

"We believe that if we outwork any team, with the talent we have in here, that we'll win," McCarty said.

Well, all the rings and all the hardware and all the Hall of Fame credentials and all the plaudits in the world ain't gonna help them now, Lidstrom warned. And he was right.

"In the third period [Saturday], we played desperate. We forced the issue. We know the position we've put ourselves in. We don't have any room left for mistakes. And we know what's coming at us in Calgary."

What came at them was a bunch of kids who believed they could pull this off. What came at them was a city that's more alive, more excited and more vocal than it ever has been for its hockey team -- yes, even during the glory year of '89. What came at them was a sense of their own mortality, the knowledge that this crazy, unheralded team simply would not go away, and the inherent understanding that should they fail, it will never be the same again.

"We're looking forward to this next game," Shanahan promised beforehand. "We've had a lot of success in Calgary, winning three of four games there this season. We've got to go there and win, and then Game 7 is back here.

"People always say the regular season means nothing. But I remember Scotty Bowman telling us that it sure does, because then you get Game 7 at home."

Assuming, of course, that it goes that far.

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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