By Scott Burnside
DETROIT -- There were times this season when the Detroit Red Wings would edge past an opponent and people would be surprised, perhaps even disappointed.
"I get it all year long. You go someplace and your friends see you after and they say, 'Well you only won 3-2 tonight,'" Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "Yeah.
But we did that enough times to learn how to do it."
It's doubtful Babcock will run into many fans who will express disappointment at the Wings' dramatic 3-2 double-overtime win Friday night to open their Western Conference quarterfinal against the Edmonton Oilers. But it is a measure of the burden of expectation: that many will view this as the inevitable outcome and nothing less than a Cup will do.
That view, more than a little skewed, will ignore the absolutely critical nature of this win. It will ignore the crucial importance of Kirk Maltby's ordinary-looking shot from the boards that nudged Oilers forward Rem Murray's stick and snuck between netminder Dwayne Roloson's pads 2:39 into the second overtime period.
It was the second goal of the game for Maltby, who tied the match with just 6:17 left in the third period, when the rebound of a point shot bounced off Roloson's chest, off the shaft of Maltby's stick and somehow back past Roloson into the net.
How improbable was Maltby's clutch two-goal performance? Well, in 42 home games this season, Maltby managed to score just once. Lotteries don't even offer such long odds.
"I just put that season behind me," Maltby said after. "I don't expect two goals every night. But to able to contribute in the first game, I'm happy about that."
The playoffs are an ocean whose currents are determined by things like momentum and disappointment and fatigue, and the lingering, nagging thoughts of what might have been and opportunities lost.
Three years ago, Mike Babcock stood on the visitor's bench at Joe Louis Arena in a game very much like this one. Only on that night, it is was Paul Kariya of Babcock's Mighty Ducks of Anaheim that set a mighty current in motion with a goal at 8:18 of triple overtime. The Kariya goal gave the seventh-seeded Ducks a 3-2 victory from which the heavily favored Red Wings never fully recovered. They dropped three more one-goal games to complete one of the most dramatic upsets in recent playoff history. Or one of the most significant choke jobs, depending on your perspective.
Now, Babcock's team, the best team during the regular season by a healthy margin, won a game they were expected to win and maybe even deserved to win, outshooting the Oilers 57-25 overall and 16-6 in the first overtime session.
"What it does, you play a long time and guys play a lot of minutes and then one team is obviously pumped up, and one team, it's like you felt you had a chance and it's gone," Babcock said. "We all know it's a race to four. You've got to win four, but it's always nice to get the first one, especially when you're the top seed."
Going into this game, Oilers coach Craig MacTavish spoke in legal terms of the importance. From the moment this matchup was known, the Oilers had been talking about how they thought they matched up well against the Red Wings in spite of the obvious disparity in their records. They have been making their case, MacTavish said. But a win Friday would have backed that case up, like testimony in a trial.
"All of a sudden you've proven it," MacTavish said prior to the game.
That case was nearly made Friday night. The Oilers, who have not won a playoff series since 1998, came within 6:17 of setting this series on a dramatically different course.
After giving up a power-play goal 4:05 into the game and appearing at times disoriented, the Oilers slowly began to right themselves. They kept the Wings to the perimeter. They did not fall into repeated penalty trouble, finishing the game taking only eight minor penalties, the same number the Wings were assessed. They blocked shots. Oh boy, did they blocks shots, 35 in all, more than twice the number blocked by the Wings. They needed to block one more.
"You can't fault our guys," Roloson said of Maltby's winner. "That's an overtime goal."
Roloson, too, proved his case. Although he'd been up and down trying to adjust to the physical and mental rigors of being a starting netminder in Edmonton after long periods of idleness in Minnesota, Roloson turned in a virtuoso performance.
"I'm not really worried about stealing games. Just give our guys a chance to win. That's all that matters," he said.
But for all the good the Oilers did, it is still short of the proof they needed.
"It's hard to feel like you have [proven anything] when you're wallowing through the disappointment right now," MacTavish said. "But when we analyze it tomorrow, we'll have accomplished a lot of the things that we needed to win the hockey game. We put ourselves in a position to win the hockey game. Our confidence won't have taken a hit certainly going into the game on Sunday."
It's a funny thing about the burden of expectation.
The Wings were expected to win Game 1, but they've been expected to win these kinds of games before and could not deliver. Now that they have, they will be expected to win Game 2, and so on.
The Oilers were not expected to win, but that didn't diminish their belief that they could.
"We talk about this in sport all the time," Babcock said. "The game you're playing is the most important one. Get ready and play the best you can and understand that the guys in their room want to win bad and the guys in our room want to win bad. Now what's going to be the difference? What shift is it going to happen, what call's going to be the difference, what chance on net? Be prepared and allow yourself to be as good as your capable of being and that'll be our focus.
"They're over there hoping their goalie's going to be outstanding, that the pressure's off them now and they're going to be quicker and freer and better and they're going to get a jump and they're going to use their youthful energy and that's what they should be talking about.
"You don't win by accident night in and night out. If you go through the stats, we've got good power play, good penalty killing, good goals for, good goals against, good goaltending, mobile 'D', forwards that score. That doesn't mean anything; you've got to win it now."
And so they did.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.