Tuesday May 13th, 2008

Like an air traffic controller or Britney Spears's publicist, Detroit Red Wings goaltender traditionally has been among America's most thankless jobs -- a fact not lost on incumbent Chris Osgood. The 35-year-old Osgood, who stoned the Dallas Stars 2-1 in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals last Saturday, has been a Red Wing long enough to know that in Detroit, skaters win Stanley Cups and goalies lose them. He shrugs at the skewed logic. "That's changing," says Osgood, who improved to 8-0 since relieving Dominik Hasek during the first round against Nashville. "I think people realize now that we win and lose as a team."

Osgood has been perceived as the worst goalie to backstop a Cup champion, which raises this possibility: In June will he be dismissed as the worst goalie to lead a team to two Cups? The thought is as absurd as the original conceit that Osgood was just along for the ride with the title-winning 1998 Red Wings when he put up a 2.12 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage in the playoffs. In 13 seasons, 10 with Detroit, Osgood has won 363 regular-season games (15th alltime) and 53 in the playoffs through Sunday. His regular-season winning percentage of .631 ranks first among the top 20 goalies in career wins. "Toss out those numbers without a name, add the Cup, and 80 percent of people would say that's near Hall of Fame credentials," Detroit winger Darren McCarty says. "Then say it's Ozzie, and the number'll drop to 50 percent. Or less."

The negativity can be blamed on some of Osgood's memorable low points, starting in 1994 when he was left sobbing at his locker after his giveaway led to a shocking series-winning third-period goal by San Jose's Jamie Baker in Game 7 of the first round. Other dodgy goals followed, notably Jamie Langenbrunner's overtime shot from a different zip code in Game 5 of the '98 conference final in Dallas. Forgotten is Osgood's shutout that eliminated the Stars in Game 6.

Yet Detroit thought it needed an upgrade and, in 2001, acquired Hasek and waived Osgood, who was picked up by the Islanders. Osgood helped New York, and then St. Louis (2003-04), reach the playoffs, but he returned to Detroit in August 2005 a new man. During the '04-05 lockout Osgood reinvented his style, a remarkable act by a 300-win goalie of whom Wings G.M. Ken Holland says, "He was an NHL goalie who had high school technical skills." Osgood introduced some butterfly into his repertoire and improved his speed. The stream of pucks that once leaked through him slowed to a trickle.

While the old Ozzie -- baseball cap tugged down, eyes averted -- has receded beneath a calm and confident demeanor, so has the hoary notion that he is a mere passenger on the Detroit bandwagon. "Not his fault we have a good team," goalie coach Jim Bedard says. Cocooned by a puck-moving, rebound-clearing defense that allowed 21 shots or fewer in six of his first eight playoff starts this spring, Osgood keeps inching from mockery toward belated stardom. "I don't brag about myself," he says. "I don't have to be a star. I just want to be part of the Red Wings." The now great and powerful Oz has spoken.

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