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It is becoming an ugly rite of spring in Motown. Here again are
the Detroit Red Wings, gamely assuring themselves that all is
well, even as they eyeball playoff elimination at the hands of a
lesser team.

"I like this team, I like our chances," Detroit center Sergei
Fedorov said after the Wings' 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues on
Sunday at Joe Louis Arena, which left Detroit down 3-2 in the
second-round series.

"The pressure's on them," Wings defenseman Paul Coffey said with
a straight face. "We'll come in tomorrow, have a good skate and
picture ourselves putting those rebounds past [Blues goaltender]
Jon Casey."

Yeah, that's the ticket: visualization. In lieu of actually
scoring goals on Casey, the Wings would solve the suddenly
impenetrable netminder by fantasizing about getting the puck
past him. Right. And Dennis Rodman should clear a space on his
mantel for that Pulitzer.

What a difference a week makes. Seven days after the Red Wings
took a 2-0 series lead by embarrassing the Blues 8-3, skating
through them as if they were a troupe of past-their-prime
All-Stars--which, in fact, they are--Detroit dropped its third
straight game to the NHL's version of the Traveling Wilburys.
Last season, with much the same team, the Wings were swept in
the Stanley Cup finals by the plodding New Jersey Devils. This
season, it seems, Detroit has moved up its timetable.

How could things have become so dire for a team that won an
NHL-record 62 games during the regular season and was considered
the odds-on favorite to win the Cup? The answer: a disappearing
act by many of Detroit's best players. In the regular season
Fedorov, Dino Ciccarelli, Nicklas Lidstrom and Keith Primeau
combined for 105 goals. In Detroit's three losses to the Blues,
a team that won 30 fewer games in the regular season, those four
players combined for no goals--unless you count the goal by St.
Louis left wing Yuri Khymlev that caromed off Lidstrom's skate
into the Red Wings' net for the game-winner on Sunday.

How, on the other hand, could a team that played so abominably
most of the season right itself so quickly? St. Louis coach Mike
Keenan did not hesitate to bash his troops after that Game 2
blowout. He described Casey's play as "awful" and all but
suggested that all-points bulletins be issued for center Wayne
Gretzky and right wing Brett Hull.

Surely Keenan didn't level those criticisms to cover his
posterior--only a cynic would suspect such a thing--but rather
to goad his players to greater efforts. Left wing Tony Twist,
whose primary role with the club is the fistic tenderizing of
opponents, was all ears. The Blues trailed 4-3 with less than 12
minutes to play in Game 3 when the Twister, who has averaged
less than one goal per season in his seven-year NHL career,
scored to send the contest into overtime. Then, just 3:23 into
sudden death, Blues defenseman Igor Kravchuk beat Detroit goalie
Mike Vernon for the game-winner.

Victory did not diminish Keenan's concern over the subpar play
of the 35-year-old Gretzky. Going into Game 4, the Great One,
the NHL's career playoff scoring leader, had zero goals to
complement his dozen assists in this postseason. "The fact that
Wayne isn't scoring, I'm sure he feels bad about it," Keenan
said helpfully. Gretzky, who has been referred to recently as
the Gray One, did feel bad--"I stink," he announced after Game
2--and couldn't have felt any better after reading a May 7
Detroit News story headlined IS GRETZKY FINISHED?

He would be finished soon enough--finished answering such inane
questions, that is. In the second period of Game 4, Blues left
wing Shayne Corson put a 50-foot pass on the tape of Gretzky's
stick, and Gretzky went in alone on Detroit goalie Chris Osgood.
After muffing four breakaways against Detroit in the first three
games of the series, Gretzky had resolved that if he got another
chance he would simply put the puck between the goalie's legs.
And so he did, blasting one through Osgood's five-hole and
producing the night's only red light. For 35 tense minutes Casey
made the goal stand up.

Keenan said all the right things about Casey after St. Louis
goalie Grant Fuhr blew out his knee on a cheap shot by Toronto
Maple Leafs winger Nick Kypreos in Game 2 of the first round of
the playoffs. Keenan called the 34-year-old Casey a "capable"
backup who had "carried the ball before"--a reference to 1991,
when he led the Minnesota North Stars to the Cup finals. But if
Keenan had really thought that much of Casey, he wouldn't have
banished him to Peoria of the International Hockey League for
most of this season.

Casey, who rejoined the Blues in February and performed
admirably when Fuhr went down, didn't look like a minor leaguer
in Game 3, hanging a bagel on the Red Wings. It was the first
time Detroit had been shut out this season. After the game Casey
took the puck to keep as a memento. "This may be my last
shutout," he said.

Casey made several acrobatic saves in Games 4 and 5, but he also
benefited from superb defensive play in front of him. The Blues
stuck to their preseries strategy, staying out of the penalty
box, keeping a third man high in their zone (the better to limit
Detroit's odd-man rushes) and packing the middle of the ice to
slow down the faster Red Wings. "They're doing a good job of
clogging the middle, putting five men in front of the net,"
Detroit center Igor Larionov said after Game 4. "We may have to
change our game plan."

If they did, it was to no avail in Game 5. The Blues once again
controlled the tempo, and Hull, who had not been a factor to
that point in the series, made his mark just in time. In the
first period he converted a blind feed from Gretzky. Hull
returned the favor midway through the second, assisting on
Gretzky's second tally in two games.

Gretzky scored his goal under the nose of Fedorov, who admitted
afterward that he'd missed his check. "Definitely not a very
good defensive play by me," he said. But Fedorov refused to
acknowledge that his team's season was in danger. "Nobody's
staring at the end of the season," he said. "It's not over till
it's over."

Coffey, whose nose was broken during the game by Ciccarelli's
stick, agreed. "The bounces aren't going our way, but they
will," he said. "I had a shot in the second period that hit one
of their guys' skates right in the toe. Nine out of 10 times
that shot would hit the side of his blade instead and deflect
into the net. But that's just the way things are going for us.
It'll turn. It has to turn."

He visualized the alternative: "If it doesn't, we're done."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO The Blues crept back into the series when Kravchuk's shot slid past Vernon in overtime of Game 3. [Mike Vernon attempting to stop puck]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Murray Baron and the hard-hitting Blues brought Primeau and the Wings back to earth in Game 3. [Keith Primeau receiving check by Murray Baron]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO The Blues' strategy was to slow down the faster Wings, as Corson did to Steve Yzerman in Game 4. [Steve Yzerman and Shayne Corson]