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The hour was late and the Detroit Red Wings couldn't sleep. This is a condition that occasionally afflicts the elderly, although most old people don't have to contend with the young, strapping Carolina Hurricanes. The way the overtimes were piling up in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals last Saturday night in Raleigh, ABC hockey hosts Al Michaels and John Davidson were probably getting ready to handle intermissions from the set of This Week in Washington. Goodbye, Scotty Bowman. Hello, Kashmir.
The Red Wings, the second oldest team in the NHL, needed something to settle themselves, maybe some warm milk from a mug or the thought of some cold champagne from Lord Stanley's Cup. Suddenly, Detroit center Igor Larionov had the puck on his backhand in front of goalie Arturs Irbe, which was a good place to be. Larionov, the league's oldest player at 41, is nicknamed the Professor. He is a wise and patient man. If he could wait for the crumbling of the Soviet Union, which finally gave him the chance to play in the NHL at 28, he could wait out Irbe. With the goalie giving ground and Red Wings teammate Mathieu Dandenault providing a screen, Larionov hesitated until the net was yawning as widely as some of the fans at the Entertainment and Sports Arena. At 1:16 a.m. EDT on Sunday he roofed the puck, ending the third-longest game in Cup finals history, at 14:47 of the third overtime, a last-call goal in a 3-2 victory that will go down as the unofficial Stanley Cup winner.
The Red Wings can't use their senior citizen's discount and claim the Cup after just three victories—the 3-0 win in Game 4 in Raleigh on Monday against a determined but seemingly spent Carolina was the inevitable sequel to the spirit-crushing defeat fewer than 48 hours earlier—but with Detroit going home for Game 5 on Thursday with a 3-1 series lead, the Wings were ready to realize their manifest destiny. Detroit, which has nine players who are expected to be voted into the Hall of Fame (Bowman was inducted in 1991), did not have the size or the industriousness of Carolina, but it had the brilliance and experience and the goaltending. Irbe was grabbing most of the attention, but Dominik Hasek, the off-season acquisition considered the missing piece of the Red Wings' championship puzzle, was winning the games. He looked as if he would end the series the way he began it—in the zone.
However, the zone Hasek was in at the start of the finals was a 45-mph construction zone, on the Lodge Freeway in Detroit, where on the morning of Game 1 he was caught doing 65. Instead of offering him a heartfelt "Go, Wings, Go!" and a stern warning, the officer issued him a speeding ticket virtually outside Joe Louis Arena as television crews recorded the scene. If you want to talk about Hasek's record, you have a choice between his six Vezina and two Hart trophies, or a DUI in Buffalo in 1995, and another speeding ticket in the Czech Republic three years later when his Ferrari skidded off the road.
Hasek said last Friday that he came to Detroit because he wanted to play in a city where hockey was the main sport, a big-market Cheers, a place where everybody knows your name. Well, at least one cop didn't know who he was, but maybe Hasek got off easy. Given Detroit's legendary frustration with its goalies, if the unpopular Chris Osgood had been behind the wheel, we might have been talking capital punishment.
The points that interested the Red Wings were not the ones on Hasek's driver's license but those he could help provide in the standings. General manager Ken Holland, an NHL netminder in the early 1980s, knew that Detroit needed an upgrade in goal over the inconsistent Osgood. With Hasek asking for a trade from Buffalo to a championship-caliber team, and the Sabres not wanting to be stuck with his $9 million contract, Hasek was available. He was also the magnet that could attract like-minded free-agent talent such as Brett Hull, whose deflection 74 seconds from the end of regulation pushed Game 3 into overtime, and goal-scoring wing Luc Robitaille. "This was tough on a personal level," Holland says of dumping Osgood, a seven-year Red Wings veteran who was placed on waivers and scooped up by the New York Islanders. "But we were talking about a guy who a couple of weeks before the trade had picked up his sixth Vezina. I had to do what was best for the Red Wings."
Hasek, 37, gave Detroit a level of goal-tending it had not had for five years. There is still a mystique about Hasek, one that lingers even if he's rarely as impenetrable as he was with the Sabres in the late 1990s. When Ron Francis beat him 58 seconds into overtime in Game 1, the Hurricanes seemed more happy about denting Hasek than about putting Detroit in an early hole.
Over the first four games he didn't have as much work as Irbe, but Hasek, who on Monday added to his record for most shutouts in one postseason (six) still has a heightened sense of the moment. With the score tied at 1-1 late in Game 2, he made a point-blank save against Bates Battaglia. Then, in Game 3, the biggest of Hasek's 41 saves was a theft in the second overtime against hapless Sami Kapanen, who had scored only one playoff goal after tallying 27 in the regular season. The only shots that seemed to flummox Hasek were breakaways—curious, considering that he is the best breakaway goalie in history. Jeff O'Neill, Carolina's top finisher, beat Hasek through the pads by coming head-on with speed in the opener. Two nights later, in Game 2, the only Hurricanes goal came after forward Rod Brind'Amour stripped defenseman Fredrik Olausson of the puck and skated in alone from the right side. Hasek never properly aligned himself and wound up sprawling to his right in a near fetal position as Brind'Amour hesitated and then fired the puck high. In his prime Hasek invariably forced breakaway shooters to make the firs? move.
Irbe's first move is usually kicking out shots with his grungy pads that look like antiques but are a mere five years old. Of course five-year-old pads are to hockey equipmemt what Pong is to video games. A small hole developed near tine knee of his left pad during the opener, but before Game 2 Irbe stitched on a leather patch. Irbe, who occasionally wrestles the puck into submission as much as he catches it and who handles the puck in his rare forays outside his crease with the touch of a stevedore, might not have all the classic goaltending tools, but he has enough tools to repair his equipment. That patch defines Irbe better than any of his numbers, including the 50 saves in Game 3 and his .943 save percentage since he re claimed his starting job from Kevin Weekes in the second round.
Irbe grew up in Latvia, and times weren't flush. "You were taught not to waste things," Irbe said last Friday as he sat in a deserted dressing room at Carolina's practice rink. "I was happy to get anything that was left over." He wore shoes, shirts and coats that had belonged to his older brother, Arvids, and hand-me-down equipment from older goalies in the youth hockey program in Riga. His mother, Malda, a kindergarten teacher's assistant, had needles and thread around the house, but Irbe had to repair his gear himself. No Carolina player has won the Art Ross as the NHL's leading scorer, but Irbe is a lock for the Betsy Ross.