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.