Osgood bringing other veteran skills to table
DETROIT -- On one of the first days of training camp last fall, Chris Osgood passed a mirror on the way to the ice in Traverse City. He paused. Staring back at him was a familiar face in a familiar red and white jersey. And it felt good and right.
"It was, yeah, I'm back now," Osgood told ESPN.com on Saturday.
Almost like he'd never been gone, right?
The man sporting the Red Wings jersey that day was nowhere near the same person who walked away from that jersey back in the summer of 2001. A Stanley Cup winner who never really got the Stanley Cup treatment and was then squeezed out in favor of Dominik Hasek, Osgood left Detroit on a professional journey that took him to Long Island and St. Louis, never expecting he'd return. Although he never experienced the successes he knew in Detroit, those stops became important way stations en route to a maturity that has allowed him to close the circle with his return to Detroit.
"It feels good to be back. When I left, it was time to move on," Osgood said. "Then, it was time to come back."
He returns not as the starter, but in a perhaps more complex role as a backup, confidante, supporter and, ultimately, friend to starter Manny Legace.
Both Osgood and Legace are 33, yet Legace's victory over Edmonton in Game 1 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series Friday night marked Legace's third career playoff victory. Osgood has 45 postseason wins.
"I'm there for him," Osgood said. "I enjoying helping Manny and playing with him."
If there are issues to discuss, Osgood will be candid.
Most of the time, though, they just hang out.
"Ozzie's a great guy. He's a great friend of mine," Legace said. "I think he'll always be for the rest of my life. I think we'll both probably end up retiring here. His wife's from here. Mine's from here. We'll be on the alumni team playing defense and drinking beers for a long time to come because I know we both won't be strapping on the pads, that's for sure. He's a great friend and he's great to have, especially as a goaltending partner."
What makes this relationship so interesting is that the old Chris Osgood couldn't have pulled it off.
"Probably not seven years ago when I was here before," he acknowledged.
Back in the late 1990s, Osgood struggled for recognition, for acceptance, even when he became a legitimate NHL starter. He led the league in 1995-96 with 39 wins in 50 games, but was 8-7 in the playoffs as the Wings bowed out in the Western Conference finals. The following season, Osgood split time with Mike Vernon, but when the playoffs rolled around, head coach Scotty Bowman went with Vernon. Even though the Wings won a Cup, the decision clearly rankled.
The following season, Osgood returned to the starter's role and took the Wings to a second straight Cup. But there were occasional lapses, long-distance goals that left Osgood answering questions about his focus at a time when he should have been reveling in the team's successful playoff run.
After the Wings signed Hasek, Osgood was left unprotected by the Wings and claimed by the Islanders in the waiver draft. The Peace River, Alberta, native suddenly found he'd gone from a team loaded with veterans to one on Long Island where he was the seasoned veteran to whom young players came with questions.
"I kind of relished it," Osgood said.
He learned that his NHL career wasn't going to be a straight line and he needed to make the most of the opportunities that presented themselves. That thinking allowed him to return to Detroit this season, comfortable in the knowledge he was returning to a markedly different role than what he enjoyed in the past.
"I still want to play. But at the same time, you've got to step back," Osgood said. "It's not about, 'Oh, Chris Osgood didn't have a good day.' Or 'Manny should be playing.' Or 'Manny shouldn't be playing.' It's not all about you."
But, here's the thing: GM Ken Holland didn't sign Osgood after the lockout just because he came cheap and didn't need a map to get to Joe Louis Arena. Holland said he wanted Osgood because he believed the netminder could not only help Legace evolve, but could step into the breach if needed.
"One of [Osgood's] biggest strengths is his ability to be like water off a duck's back. If he lets in a bad goal, it doesn't affect the next game. If he has a bad game, it doesn't affect him for a week," Holland said.
Osgood was 20-6-5 this season and Holland figures he turned in 25 quality starts. Every team wishes their backup could produce such numbers. Goaltending coach Jim Bedard said he sees a difference in Osgood's disposition since his first go-round.
"Yeah, I think he's different. I think Ozzie's enjoying being back here. He's been unbelievable this year. There's been absolutely no dips in his practice habits," Bedard said.
Does it matter whether they get along?
Certainly there are many stories of No. 1 goalies who treat their colleagues shoddily. Sometimes they win, sometimes they don't. But Bedard believes goaltending harmony is the way to go.
"I think it's unsettling to a team, not just goalies, if there are certain parts of a team that's not in sync with others," he said.
One top scout agrees, saying he thinks the Wings' goaltending situation, considered by some to be a weak point on a strong team, is actually rock-solid because of Osgood's presence and his relationship with Legace.
"I think he's valued there. Chris has a sense of belonging and a sense of feeling that he's counted on there. I think Chris has been excellent," the scout said.
Kris Draper and Osgood lived together for 3½ years when both first arrived in Detroit and they spent a lot of time during the lockout together, talking in part about a return to Detroit.
"The two of them complimented each other very well this year and kind of pulled each other along," said Draper. "I think Ozzie's presence in the dressing room helps Manny out in this situation, not being a No. 1 goaltender in the playoffs. That's something that certainly is going to pay dividends having a guy like Ozzie."
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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