The Gen-X couple on their way into the Red Wings game in Detroit
on Sunday--a woman wearing a white Chris Osgood jersey, her
boyfriend decked out in a spiffy Steve Yzerman replica--were
chatting with two other fans they had just met when one of them
told the woman, "You know, you're taking a real chance wearing
that." An Osgood sweater, like a Toyota, is considered
provocative in Detroit. If you are bold enough to wear the
goalie's winged-wheel number 30 into Joe Louis Arena, where it
seems three quarters of the fans are sporting red-and-white
Wings finery, the statement you make is only partly about
fashion. As Red Wings center Kris Draper noted, "The two
toughest jobs in this city are Lions quarterback and Red Wings
goalie--and not in that order."
Detroit is an off-the-rack town, and Osgood has been an
on-the-rack guy. He has been inspected and rejected. The city
has tried to get into his head for five years, the way the
Dallas Stars have tried to barge into his crease in the Western
Conference finals, which Detroit led 3-1 at week's end. After
any bad goal--and Osgood has given up three certifiably soft
ones in this season's playoffs--the screws turn even tighter.
Osgood, more defiant than defensive, shrugs at civic anxiety run
rampant. He turned to goaltending as a boy in Medicine Hat,
Alberta, because he reveled in being the player who led his team
onto the ice, because he knew he would be intimately involved in
the outcome of each game, because he liked the feeling of
stopping a puck. He is 25 now, and nothing has changed. Speaking
in a soft monotone, eyes slightly downcast, fingers tugging on
his right ear, Osgood says, "I don't mind the question 'Can he
win?' I expect it. To be in the same category as [Stanley
Cup-winning goalies] Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, you have to
win. I like it that way. To be honest, I've been depicted here
the wrong way. People say I can't handle the pressure. Well,
I've played in a lot of Game 7's [since he was a kid], a lot of
must-wins, and won a lot of them. But there are always going to
be critics until you win it all."
Osgood may be on his way. He stopped 31 shots last Friday in a
5-3 Detroit victory in Game 3, earning universal praise in the
Wings locker room and making the number 30 on that woman's back
on Sunday look as fashionable as DKNY. Detroit coach Scotty
Bowman slathered it on--"Chris has won a lot of games for us,
but this might be the best he's played," he said--but then
Bowman, never without an agenda, might simply have been trying
to pump up his goalie with a little well-placed smoke. After the
Wings beat the Stars 3-2 in Game 4, which almost turned into the
airport scene from Casablanca because of fog on the ice caused
by hot, humid weather, it was Stars coach Ken Hitchcock's turn
to be noble. "That's the best I've seen Osgood play since I came
into the league," he said. The goalie had foiled four
last-minute Dallas scoring chances, one with a dramatic glove
save on a shot that Sergei Zubov targeted for the top corner
with 6.5 seconds left.
If the Red Wings can brush aside Dallas, the best team during
the NHL's regular season, they should roll over the winner of
the junior varsity series, otherwise known as the Eastern
Conference finals, which the Washington Capitals led 3-1 over
the Buffalo Sabres (page 60). A Wings-to-repeat proposition
would get you short odds, but if you're looking for a little
action, try to pick the game in which Osgood cracks.
After Greg Adams's fluttery game winner from 40 feet slithered
through Osgood's pads in Game 2--which wasn't as bad as Al
MacInnis's last-minute slap shot from center ice that tied Game
3 of the quarterfinal series against the St. Louis Blues, or the
slapper from the point by the Phoenix Coyotes' Jeremy Roenick in
the first round--Stars scouting director Craig Button told
general manager Bob Gainey and assistant coach Doug Jarvis,
"That's it. One a series. Don't expect any more easy ones."
The resiliency that allows Osgood to get over a bad goal is what
makes him formidable. In Button's scouting report for the
Detroit series, he noted the goalie's quickness, agility and
competitiveness. He said that the Stars needed to create traffic
in front of Osgood--a line that appears in hockey scouting
reports as often as "Don't let Barry Bonds beat you" does in
baseball. But Button could find no glaring weakness in Osgood.
"Last year when [former Detroit goalie] Mike Vernon won the
Stanley Cup here, there were signs at the celebration saying,
I'M SORRY, MIKE," Button says, referring to the rough treatment
the Wings faithful had given Vernon. "If Detroit wins again, the
same thing will happen with Osgood."
Although Detroit is the most sophisticated hockey city in the
U.S., it hasn't escaped the American trap of mythologizing the
goaltender. Goalie fixation can whip up instant heroes such as
Jim Craig of the gold medal 1980 U.S. Olympic team and even Ray
Leblanc, a career minor leaguer who set a nation aflutter by
stopping 46 shots against Germany in the 1992 Albertville Games.
In the case of the Red Wings, obsession with the netminder leads
to demonization. The oft-criticized Vernon went from sinner to
saint when Detroit ended its 42-year Cup drought last
year--"Vernie performs one miracle and gets canonized,"
Detroit's Brendan Shanahan slyly observed--but most of the other
17 men who have minded Detroit's goal in the past decade have
been chewed up and spit out by a city that wished it could
exhume Hall of Famer Terry Sawchuk and start him in net.
Osgood saw the acid eat away at Tim Cheveldae and Bob Essensa,
two of his early goaltending partners in Detroit. "I remember
being here with Cheveldae," Osgood says. "He took it [the
criticism] to heart. Other goalies here said, 'Oh, no, not this
again,' and everything piled up on their heads, and they let it
bury them. I'm not going to let that happen to me. You have to
stick up for yourself. I'll say something if I'm being wrongly
criticized. Maybe Vernie taught me to be more abrasive, a bit
stronger. When he came here [in 1995], we kind of said it's time
we turned around the way goaltenders are thought of in this city."
In 1994, Osgood's rookie season, he made a poor clearing pass in
Game 7 of a first-round series against the upstart San Jose
Sharks, and the puck wound up in his net. The Wings suffered one
of the most shocking playoff upsets of the decade, and Osgood
wept at his locker as cameras rolled. No one deserves to have
his grief televised, especially not a well-intentioned
21-year-old with the face of a cherub. Osgood knew that he would
become a better goalie in time--he had been relying on his
reflexes because his positioning and anticipation were still
rudimentary--but only the playoffs could give him the calluses
he needed to play goal in Detroit.
The calluses kept building, layer upon layer. He would watch as
Vernon blew up against the New Jersey Devils in their sweep of
the 1995 Cup finals. The next year Osgood went from the euphoria
of a 1-0 double-overtime win in Game 7 of the second round
against St. Louis to the despair of being knocked out in the
semifinals by the Colorado Avalanche. Last year, even though he
played 14 more games than Vernon in the regular season and had a
better goals-against average and save percentage, he turned into
Vernon's valet during the 1997 postseason run, playing just 47
mop-up minutes in two games. Osgood had his name engraved on the
Stanley Cup, but there is a difference between being on the Cup
and getting first dibs on skating a victory lap with it.
"That's why I was real excited this year, even coming to camp,"
says Osgood, who saw Vernon, the playoff MVP, traded to San Jose
last August for draft picks, reportedly over Bowman's
objections. "I knew I would be playing in the postseason." He
also knew he would be picked at like a scab.
Osgood's trouble, other than stopping an occasional
long-distance shot, is his nickname. Ozzie is fine if you are
rooming with Harriet, but put it next to the Dominator
(Buffalo's Dominik Hasek) or Godzilla (Washington's Olaf Kolzig)
or Eddie the Eagle (Dallas's Ed Belfour) and you see the
problem. Osgood's 1998 playoff numbers haven't stacked up,
either--his 2.31 goals-against average and .911 save percentage
at week's end lagged slightly behind those of the other three
starting goalies left in the tournament--but if you make a more
thorough comparison, Osgood looks good. Before this season Hasek
had never won a playoff series, Kolzig had kept his 'Zilla mask
next to him on the bench most of the time (he had never played
more than 29 games in one season), and Belfour had put up good
numbers on good defensive teams but was blitzed by the
Pittsburgh Penguins in their sweep of the '92 Cup finals.
Through four games in this year's conference finals Osgood
clearly had outplayed Belfour, whose enduring moment in the
series had come as a thespian. As the Stars mounted a furious
rally that trimmed Detroit's lead to one goal late in Game 3,
Belfour ranged to the left of his net to play the puck, was
tapped by Martin Lapointe's stick and crumpled in the least
convincing performance since the Spice Girls' movie. Referee
Terry Gregson ignored the goalie, who scrambled back to his
crease just as Lapointe shoveled in an insurance goal.
Osgood's acting also has gotten him in trouble: He once forgot
his lines during a sixth-grade skit in Medicine Hat. Osgood says
this is the only time he ever succumbed to pressure. Dallas,
which outshot the Red Wings by a combined 64-43 in Games 3 and
4, is in no position to argue.
"Maybe I have some things to prove," says Osgood, exasperation
creeping into his voice. "But if we win, next year you'll have
to ask me different questions. No doubt people will come up with
something. 'He's 26 now. Is he losing it?'"
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO TALL ORDER In four playoff games, Osgood showed Mike Modano and the Stars that he had the goods to beat them. [Chris Osgood and Mike Modano in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO STRONG-HEADED One thing that makes Osgood effective in the net is his ability to put the bad goals he allows behind him. [Chris Osgood]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO FIRST STAR Though outmanned here, Osgood was by far the best player in Game 3, stopping 31 shots in the Red Wings' 5-3 win. [Chris Osgood and three Dallas Stars players in game]
"The two toughest jobs in Detroit are Lions quarterback and Red
Wings goalie--and not in that order."