The hour was late and the Detroit Red Wings couldn't sleep. This
is a condition that occasionally afflicts the elderly, although
most old people don't have to contend with the young, strapping
Carolina Hurricanes. The way the overtimes were piling up in
Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals last Saturday night in Raleigh,
ABC hockey hosts Al Michaels and John Davidson were probably
getting ready to handle intermissions from the set of This Week
in Washington. Goodbye, Scotty Bowman. Hello, Kashmir.
The Red Wings, the second oldest team in the NHL, needed
something to settle themselves, maybe some warm milk from a mug
or the thought of some cold champagne from Lord Stanley's Cup.
Suddenly, Detroit center Igor Larionov had the puck on his
backhand in front of goalie Arturs Irbe, which was a good place
to be. Larionov, the league's oldest player at 41, is nicknamed
the Professor. He is a wise and patient man. If he could wait
for the crumbling of the Soviet Union, which finally gave him
the chance to play in the NHL at 28, he could wait out Irbe.
With the goalie giving ground and Red Wings teammate Mathieu
Dandenault providing a screen, Larionov hesitated until the net
was yawning as widely as some of the fans at the Entertainment
and Sports Arena. At 1:16 a.m. EDT on Sunday he roofed the puck,
ending the third-longest game in Cup finals history, at 14:47 of
the third overtime, a last-call goal in a 3-2 victory that will
go down as the unofficial Stanley Cup winner.
The Red Wings can't use their senior citizen's discount and
claim the Cup after just three victories--the 3-0 win in Game 4
in Raleigh on Monday against a determined but seemingly spent
Carolina was the inevitable sequel to the spirit-crushing defeat
fewer than 48 hours earlier--but with Detroit going home for
Game 5 on Thursday with a 3-1 series lead, the Wings were ready
to realize their manifest destiny. Detroit, which has nine
players who are expected to be voted into the Hall of Fame
(Bowman was inducted in 1991), did not have the size or the
industriousness of Carolina, but it had the brilliance and
experience and the goaltending. Irbe was grabbing most of the
attention, but Dominik Hasek, the off-season acquisition
considered the missing piece of the Red Wings' championship
puzzle, was winning the games. He looked as if he would end the
series the way he began it--in the zone.
However, the zone Hasek was in at the start of the finals was a
45-mph construction zone, on the Lodge Freeway in Detroit, where
on the morning of Game 1 he was caught doing 65. Instead of
offering him a heartfelt "Go, Wings, Go!" and a stern warning,
the officer issued him a speeding ticket virtually outside Joe
Louis Arena as television crews recorded the scene. If you want
to talk about Hasek's record, you have a choice between his six
Vezina and two Hart trophies, or a DUI in Buffalo in 1995, and
another speeding ticket in the Czech Republic three years later
when his Ferrari skidded off the road.
Hasek said last Friday that he came to Detroit because he wanted
to play in a city where hockey was the main sport, a big-market
Cheers, a place where everybody knows your name. Well, at least
one cop didn't know who he was, but maybe Hasek got off easy.
Given Detroit's legendary frustration with its goalies, if the
unpopular Chris Osgood had been behind the wheel, we might have
been talking capital punishment.
The points that interested the Red Wings were not the ones on
Hasek's driver's license but those he could help provide in the
standings. General manager Ken Holland, an NHL netminder in the
early 1980s, knew that Detroit needed an upgrade in goal over
the inconsistent Osgood. With Hasek asking for a trade from
Buffalo to a championship-caliber team, and the Sabres not
wanting to be stuck with his $9 million contract, Hasek was
available. He was also the magnet that could attract like-minded
free-agent talent such as Brett Hull, whose deflection 74
seconds from the end of regulation pushed Game 3 into overtime,
and goal-scoring wing Luc Robitaille. "This was tough on a
personal level," Holland says of dumping Osgood, a seven-year
Red Wings veteran who was placed on waivers and scooped up by
the New York Islanders. "But we were talking about a guy who a
couple of weeks before the trade had picked up his sixth Vezina.
I had to do what was best for the Red Wings."
Hasek, 37, gave Detroit a level of goaltending it had not had
for five years. There is still a mystique about Hasek, one that
lingers even if he's rarely as impenetrable as he was with the
Sabres in the late 1990s. When Ron Francis beat him 58 seconds
into overtime in Game 1, the Hurricanes seemed more happy about
denting Hasek than about putting Detroit in an early hole.
Over the first four games he didn't have as much work as Irbe,
but Hasek, who on Monday added to his record for most shutouts
in one postseason (six) still has a heightened sense of the
moment. With the score tied at 1-1 late in Game 2, he made a
point-blank save against Bates Battaglia. Then, in Game 3, the
biggest of Hasek's 41 saves was a theft in the second overtime
against hapless Sami Kapanen, who had scored only one playoff
goal after tallying 27 in the regular season. The only shots
that seemed to flummox Hasek were breakaways--curious,
considering that he is the best breakaway goalie in history.
Jeff O'Neill, Carolina's top finisher, beat Hasek through the
pads by coming head-on with speed in the opener. Two nights
later, in Game 2, the only Hurricanes goal came after forward
Rod Brind'Amour stripped defenseman Fredrik Olausson of the puck
and skated in alone from the right side. Hasek never properly
aligned himself and wound up sprawling to his right in a near
fetal position as Brind'Amour hesitated and then fired the puck
high. In his prime Hasek invariably forced breakaway shooters to
make the first move.
Irbe's first move is usually kicking out shots with his grungy
pads that look like antiques but are a mere five years old. Of
course five-year-old pads are to hockey equipment what Pong is
to video games. A small hole developed near the knee of his left
pad during the opener, but before Game 2 Irbe stitched on a
leather patch. Irbe, who occasionally wrestles the puck into
submission as much as he catches it and who handles the puck in
his rare forays outside his crease with the touch of a
stevedore, might not have all the classic goaltending tools, but
he has enough tools to repair his equipment. That patch defines
Irbe better than any of his numbers, including the 50 saves in
Game 3 and his .943 save percentage since he reclaimed his
starting job from Kevin Weekes in the second round.
Irbe grew up in Latvia, and times weren't flush. "You were
taught not to waste things," Irbe said last Friday as he sat in
a deserted dressing room at Carolina's practice rink. "I was
happy to get anything that was left over." He wore shoes, shirts
and coats that had belonged to his older brother, Arvids, and
hand-me-down equipment from older goalies in the youth hockey
program in Riga. His mother, Malda, a kindergarten teacher's
assistant, had needles and thread around the house, but Irbe had
to repair his gear himself. No Carolina player has won the Art
Ross as the NHL's leading scorer, but Irbe is a lock for the
The only other hole that Irbe needs fixing is in his genes. At
5'8" he's a garden gnome in a league that prefers its goalies to
be Godzillas. Even though he favors a stand-up style, Irbe was
vulnerable to high shots in the Cup finals. Detroit pounded the
puck upstairs, scoring twice in Game 1 to the stick side. The
six goals in the next two games all were high to the glove side.
The Wings' winner late in Game 2, a 40-foot onetimer on the
power play by the impeccable Nicklas Lidstrom, typified Irbe's
difficulties. While wing Tomas Holmstrom, who is more irritating
than a telemarketer at supper time, became entangled in front of
the crease with defenseman Aaron Ward, Irbe was hopelessly
screened. A taller goalie might have looked over the traffic,
but Irbe had to peer around it and didn't immediately pick up
the play as Detroit shifted from a setup with two point men to
an umbrella, with Lidstrom drifting down to the right face-off
circle. Neither Lidstrom's score, nor Kris Draper's breakaway
goal 13 seconds later, rattled Irbe.
"If you are not an optimist," Irbe said the next day, "you have
no business being successful." He left a press conference and
sat in his car in the parking lot for 10 minutes, chatting with
fans. This was the purest moment of the week, a testament to a
goalie and to the hockey fans in Carolina, who lay on the wit
and charm with a trowel. But Barney Fife is not likely to be the
next FBI director, as a sign by a Raleigh tailgater urged before
Game 3, and the Hurricanes are not likely to win the 2002
Stanley Cup. Sometimes even old men stay up later than Cinderella.
For continuing Stanley Cup finals coverage, including
on-the-scene analysis from Michael Farber and Daniel G. Habib,
go to cnnsi.com/hockey/2002/playoffs.
goalies to be Godzillas, and he was vulnerable to high shots in
Famers-to-be, was ready to realize its manifest destiny.