This is why we are hockey fans.
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Monday night was a game for the ages, and if you do not believe that, consider the names of Bobby Baun and Babe Ruth were invoked sometime around the second or third overtime.
Pittsburgh defenseman Sergei Gonchar left the game early with an upper-body injury -- and this time, it really looked like the entire upper body -- after crashing hard into the end boards. Late, and I mean late in every sense of the word, in the overtime periods, Gonchar returned to the bench to provide moral support.
Then came the power play after a high-sticking double minor to Jiri Hudler. Gonchar took to the ice, playing his familiar point position. Watching Gonchar was reminiscent of Bobby Baun, who scored the overtime winner in game six of the 1964 Stanley Cup while playing on a broken ankle.
In the modern case, Gonchar had an opportunity to shoot early in the power play, but it was clear he could not shoot. No problem, when you have Petr Sykora on the same unit.
While on the bench late in the second overtime, Sykora turned to NBC's Pierre McGuire, pointed to himself and said he would score the winning goal.
There are debates as to whether Babe Ruth ever called his shot, but the lore lives on. Today, Sykora becomes part of that lore.
This would be amazing stuff, incredible theater, if it was any old playoff game. But it was far more than that. The Detroit faithful came to coronate the new Stanley Cup Champions, and it nearly happened. Detroit led three games to one coming in, and Joe Louis Arena rocked like it has not in years.
The first period was an unmitigated disaster for the home side. Plagued by nervousness and giveaways, the Wings found themselves down 2-0 after the opening period, a period that might have been their worst of the playoffs.
Detroit opened it up in the second period, but could only find the back of the net once. Heading into the third period, the Wings found themselves trailing by a goal, so they opened the game up even further.
And it worked. At 6:43, Pavel Datsyuk executed a perfect tip off an amazing fake shot-turned-pass from Henrik Zetterberg to tie the game. And when Wyandotte, Mich., native Brian Rafalski gave the Wings the lead midway through the period, the party had started.
Hometown boy becomes a superstar, returns home a decade later, then scores the Stanley Cup winning goal. It seemed the script was too good to be true.
Apparently, it was.
Nobody in the Joe sat through the period's closing minutes, and the Wings were playing to perfection. Pittsburgh was getting very few chances, there were almost no whistles, and the muggy arena was on the verge of going crazy.
When the public address system played Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" late in the third period, as has become Detroit custom, the crowd continued singing. Considering the song has found new life as the closing song from the final episode of the Sopranos, it only seems fitting Maxime Talbot "whacked" in a loose puck to tie the game with just 35 seconds to go.
It had been roughly 70 years since a team facing elimination tied a Stanley Cup Final game in the closing minute of the game, but that is exactly what happened on this night. A fateful 35 seconds that separated Detroit from hockey glory. The struggles of the auto industry, falling housing prices, and a struggling economy did not matter, as the Wings were about to win their fourth Stanley Cup in just 12 years.
And just like that, it was all taken away. For now, anyway.
Then reality set in. There was still an overtime to be played. And if that failed, there would be two more chances for Detroit to capture hockey's holy grail.
The Wings came out flying in the overtime period, dominating the first overtime stanza. Unfortunately for them, a brick wall named Marc-Andre Fleury was guarding the pipes.
Fleury has been hot and cold through the playoffs, as he has much of his career. To put things in perspective, however, Fleury is just 23 years old. Many of the game's best goaltenders -- names like Dominik Hasek and Johnny Bower -- had not tasted the NHL by that age. For Fleury to be the starter on a Stanley Cup finalist at that age is remarkable.
And remarkable does not begin to describe how he played in overtime. He faced 58 shots in the game -- 24 in the two and a half overtimes -- but stats do not tell the whole story. Particularly in the first overtime, Fleury faced countless top-notch scoring chances, and came up big virtually every time.
By the time the game ended around 1 a.m. Detroit time, the Joe Louis Arena was silent, but far from empty. The city earned the reputation as Hockeytown for a reason -- the fans were still there. Whether or not anyone was there -- at work, that is -- at 8 a.m. Tuesday is another matter entirely.
But they all know where they will be at 8 p.m. Wednesday -- in front of a television, in a bar, or in the Mellon Arena. In a series where each game has been more entertaining than the previous, perhaps there should be a petition to extend this series to a best-of-nine.
Failing that, it would be advisable to tune in Wednesday night. Monday's game five got an impressive 4.3 rating/8 share on NBC, and it would seem almost guaranteed all of those people will tune back in for game six.
Tiger Woods may say nobody cares about hockey anymore, but the numbers indicate otherwise. And after all, when is the last time you saw sports bars packed with fans cheering on their favorite golfers?
I thought so.
And in this series, even in Los Angeles, this has been big enough to be on the 100-inch big screens, as well as every television in the bar. At least, that is the way it was at the packed bar I was at for game four Saturday night.
This series is living up to expectations, and with any luck, fans in non-traditional markets will finally discover what the rest of us have known for years. When played at its best, hockey provides excitement, passion, and intrigue not provided by much else on this planet.
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