When Keith Primeau walked into the Detroit Red Wing dressing room in Joe Louis Arena the morning after Game 4 of the Western Conference finals last Thursday, equipment manager Paul Boyer pulled him aside and delivered the bad news: His gear had been sabotaged. Primeau had been tossed from the match the night before in Chicago after using his stick to open a blood donor clinic on Blackhawk captain Dirk Graham's face, and someone who had spotted Primeau's equipment bag in the United Center corridor had obviously taken it upon himself to avenge Graham.
Did they mess with his stick blades?
Did they take a razor blade to his laces?
"Well, actually we noticed a smell on the equipment truck, and we noticed a smell when we loaded the plane," Boyer told him. "Then we opened your bag this morning. Somebody put an octopus in your skate."
There. So it turns out those know-it-all Red Wing fans who for five seasons booed him almost every time his name was announced, who jeered him for being so big and oafish on skates, who loathed him not so much because he was Keith Primeau but because he wasn't Jaromir Jagr, were absolutely right. Primeau had a splendid series against Chicago, but he definitely stinks.
Slava Kozlov scored at 2:25 of the second overtime early Monday morning to give Detroit a series-clinching 2-1 win and its first spot in the Stanley Cup finals in 29 years. This was a five-game series that seemed to last as long as the Punic Wars, only with a higher body count as key players for both teams—centers Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman for Detroit, center Jeremy Roenick and defenseman Steve Smith for Chicago—kept falling. The Red Wings didn't have a laugher (they led for just 19:52 of the almost 18 periods played), although the games kept everyone in stitches. All four of Detroit's victories were by a goal: two in double overtime, one in overtime, another with 1:45 left in regulation.
"It was a lot tougher series than it looked at times," Red Wing coach Scott Bowman said after it was all over. "The way [Blackhawk goalie] Ed Belfour played.... I've said it before: He's the best goaltender we faced in the playoffs. It was going to take a special kind of shot to beat him."
And Kozlov's clincher was a special shot. He carried the puck into the Chicago zone against defenseman Chris Chelios, who had been on the ice for almost 40 minutes. As Kozlov pulled up, Chelios overskated the play. By happenstance, the puck hopped over Chelios's stick, and Kozlov took the opening to fire a 30-footer between Belfour's pads. Belfour quickly was surrounded by consoling teammates who tapped him on the head, which is where he had been standing all night. He made 45 saves, including 19 in the second period when Detroit outshot the Blackhawks 20-2. Belfour skipped the traditional postgame handshake where platitudes like "Good job" are routinely mouthed. After a night—and part of a morning—spent playing like a wizard, Belfour didn't need to hear it.
Primeau had a team-high seven shots and some gilt-edged opportunities to score in regulation Sunday night. His best chance came on a deflection from the edge of the crease in the second period during a five-on-three Detroit power play, a shot that struck Belfour on the chest and dribbled to the goal line before he covered it. No matter. There was enough glory in Octopus City to reflect on all the Wings, even a monster like Primeau. He came to Detroit five years ago at age 18, a 6'4" package of arms, legs and promise, and he grew another inch and a half the next year. Then during these playoffs, the 220-pound Primeau kept looming larger and larger. "He used to be in the Bambi stage," Red Wing assistant coach Dave Lewis says. "But now he's a full-grown moose."
With the two marquee Red Wing centers slowed by injuries—Yzerman didn't return from arthroscopic knee surgery until Game 4 and Fedorov was knocked out of Game 3 with a bruised left shoulder and missed the fourth game—Primeau, the center for Dino Ciccarelli and Shawn Burr on the Two Men and a Baby Line, was given more responsibilities, more ice, more important face-offs.