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Original Issue

Game 1,023 Just another regular-season match? Don't tell that to the Red Wings and the Blues, who were fighting bitterly to secure a better seed in the postseason

There is something distinctly un-American about standing up and
happily proclaiming, "We're Number 2!" Good things come in
threes, cleanup hitters bat fourth, sevens are lucky, and love
potions are number 9. But the wondrous possibilities of being
second-best seem to be valued only in hockey, as the hot Detroit
Red Wings and the wounded St. Louis Blues attested when they
convened at Savvis Center last Saturday. On the NHL master
schedule it was simply Game 1,023. On the ice it was Arch
Madness. Separated by one point in the Central Division standings
and battling for the No. 2 playoff seed in the Western
Conference, the Red Wings and the Blues played emotional and
occasionally superb hockey in a 2-2 tie. Before the match, St.
Louis coach Joel Quenneville called it the biggest game of the
year. Afterward, many observers said it was perhaps the best game
of the year.

The teams had come from different directions (the Red Wings had
lost only once in their last 15 games, the Blues had been
stumbling in an injury-induced 2-6-2-2 haze), but they met at the
right time of year with a lot on the line. Even if it seemed that
this unusually important regular-season match would be
overshadowed by estranged Philadelphia Flyers center Eric
Lindros--when news leaked last Friday that the Blues and the Red
Wings were on the expanded list of teams he would accept a trade
to, everyone reacted as if Godot had shown up looking for change
for a twenty--players kept their eyes on the consolation prize of
heading into the postseason in the slot right behind the loaded
Colorado Avalanche. Playoff positioning is critical, and not
simply because only three of 20 regular-season conference winners
have reached the Stanley Cup finals over the past 10 years while
five second seeds have made it. You don't have to be Stephen
Hawking or even Steve Yzerman to do the math.

For the first five months of the season most players are content
to stick to simple arithmetic--goals, points, the amount of
withholding tax on their paychecks--but in March, as the weather
and the playoff races warm, they fashion intriguing equations
from the standings, like: 2 vs. 7 - X = Colorado. In other
words, Detroit or St. Louis would benefit by finishing second in
the Western Conference and starting the playoffs against the No.
7 seed, which, assuming no upset in the first two rounds (the X
factor), would equal a match with the Cup-favorite Avalanche no
earlier than the conference finals.

"There's a logic to it," Yzerman, the Red Wings' captain, says of
nailing down the second seed. "No question Colorado is the top
Western team. You have to guess the Stanley Cup will go through
them. The common wisdom is, try to avoid playing them until the
third round."

For those dropouts who think an isosceles triangle is the offense
Michael Jordan executed in Chicago, we will review the playoff
math (and show our work). There are tangible benefits to being
second in the conference. The most obvious are home ice advantage
for at least the first two rounds and the opportunity to open
against a presumably softer touch, which at week's end would be
the Edmonton Oilers. (The fourth-seeded team, which would be St.
Louis, would play the surprisingly strong Vancouver Canucks in
Round 1.)

Then the math gets more complicated, courtesy of the NHL format
that awards the top three seeds in each conference to the
division winners and seeds the remaining five clubs in order of
regular-season points. If there are no first-round upsets in the
West, then the No. 2 seed (Red Wings, 94 points) would meet the
No. 3 team (Dallas Stars, 83), which, at week's end, would have
fewer points than the No. 4 seed (Blues, 91). However, the
primary benefit is putting off a meeting with the Avalanche
(101), which eliminated the Red Wings in the second round each of
the past two years.

This is not the same as delaying a visit to the dentist or
starting a diet tomorrow--there are sound hockey principles
behind skirting Colorado early. While the Avalanche is absurdly
talented, it has been a two-line club, and its shortened bench
and normal playoff attrition have helped keep it out of the
Stanley Cup finals since 1996. The Red Wings regularly roll four
lines, keeping fresher players on the ice. "Because of the way
we use our lines," says Detroit winger Brendan Shanahan, who
sent last Saturday's game into overtime by scoring with 50
seconds to go in regulation, "I think our club gets stronger as
it gets deeper into the playoffs."

St. Louis would be a four-line team too, if Quenneville could
find enough healthy players amid the rubble. The Blues have been
ravaged by injuries to their high-end talent, most notably to
star defensemen Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis. Like a cartoon
character who charges off a cliff and remains suspended in midair
because he doesn't look down, St. Louis soldiered on capably for
a brief spell without Pronger, who returned after left knee
surgery for two games last month before breaking his left
forearm, and MacInnis, whose vision in the wake of a left eye
injury sustained in late January fluctuates between 20/100 and

However, as was bound to happen after a win in Colorado and a
hard-fought tie in Dallas last month, the depleted Blues finally
looked down--and dropped in the standings. The back line pairings
have been continually shuffled; the once crisply executed
breakout plays that were a Blues specialty have become a puck
whipped around the boards. With other key injuries to forwards
Pavol Demitra, Michal Handzus and Tyson Nash, some players were
forced to play extra minutes and were put into circumstances that
overwhelmed them.

"This wasn't easy considering some guys who have been here just
the last couple of years hardly ever saw us lose two games in a
row," says St. Louis center Craig Conroy. "We stopped
instigating, taking the body, doing what the good teams do."

The Blues were hesitating, at least when they weren't
overcompensating by being haphazardly aggressive. In the second
period of a 5-2 loss to the Avalanche last Thursday, Colorado
goalie Patrick Roy trapped all three St. Louis forwards who had
ventured deep by faking a pass up the boards and then whipping
the puck up the middle to Joe Sakic, who took off on a

The Blues' problems were compounded by the faltering goaltending
of Roman Turek (.898 save percentage), who spent the third period
against Colorado holed up in the dressing room after being
pulled. If he couldn't bear to watch his teammates, Turek can
imagine how Quenneville felt about watching him allow five goals
on only 19 shots in the first two periods. Last spring, in the
first-round upset loss to the San Jose Sharks, Turek was
victimized by bizarre goals that eroded his confidence, which
still has not been fully restored. When Turek loses his patience,
he loses his angles--a fatal flaw. Roving goalie coach Keith
Allain joined the team last Thursday to help put the fragile
Turek back together, a process that took less time than anyone
imagined considering his professional 25-save performance last

Quenneville usually decides who will play goal the day before a
game, but on Friday he held off naming a starter, waiting to see
if Turek could pass an unofficial audition in practice. "My job
at this point is to make sure Roman is ready for the playoffs,"
says Quenneville, who has rookie Brent Johnson (18-7-2 with a
.909 save percentage) as a backup. "He has something to prove."

There is nothing Chris Osgood should have to prove for the Red
Wings, but goaltending in Detroit is a scab that is picked by
habit. The topic is always fresh, albeit beside the point--in the
late 1990s the Red Wings played such a complete game that their
success probably depended less on their goalies than did any
other Stanley Cup winner of the past two decades with the
exception of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991-92--although red
flags still go up whenever red lights go on behind Osgood. The
goalie, who had recovered in January after a protracted
early-season slump, was yanked in recent consecutive starts. When
questioned about his team's goaltending after the Red Wings beat
the Canucks 4-3 on March 6, coach Scotty Bowman grew incensed in
a show of support for Osgood, who edged his season's save
percentage up to .899 by stopping 26 shots four days later
against St. Louis.

"Ozzie's greatest strength," general manager Ken Holland says,
"is his ability to bounce back from bad goals, bad games, bad
stretches. When we won the Cup in '98, he let in a goal in Game 5
[of the conference finals against Dallas] from the other side of
center ice. Then in Game 6 he wins 2-0 and is the star. He has
the ability to put things out of his mind."

There was plenty to remember from the Blues-Wings tie, sturdy
plays like St. Louis center Pierre Turgeon fending off defenseman
Chris Chelios in a one-on-one battle, protecting the puck before
curling to the middle and passing it back to the point to set up
his team's first goal. There were savvy plays like Shanahan's
decision in overtime to forcefully engage Alexei Gusarov a zip
code behind the play, getting the referee to call coincidental
roughing minors and thus whistling the play dead with the Blues
in the middle of an odd-man rush. There were foiled breakaways
and an outside-inside rush by Yzerman that turned Conroy inside
out. There was a little bit of everything.

The Blues and Red Wings will see each other again on March 28,
by which time Pronger should be nearing a return and MacInnis
will know whether he'll be back this season. Quenneville said he
reserves the right to call that match in Detroit--NHL Game
1,144--the biggest of the year, maybe the last chance to snuggle
in behind the Avalanche before the playoffs. That would hardly
be a terrible 2.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Eye contact Embattled goalie Osgood kept his focus as Chelios (center) fended off Dallas Drake in Saturday's thrilling 2-2 tie.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Engaging the enemy Detroit's Darren McCarty and St. Louis's Marty Reasoner got locked up after a face-off in overtime.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Tying one on This late goal by Shanahan (not pictured) slipped past Turek, who was otherwise solid.