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Brian Cazeneuve
June 13, 2008
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June 13, 2008

Going Home Again


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THE REEMERGENCE OF CHRIS OSGOOD really began with the reinvention of Chris Osgood. Go back to the lockout season of 2004-05, a year when the game and many of its players wasted away. In many eyes Osgood had already been headed in that direction: an average goalie, fortunate to spend the bulk of his career on a team great enough to conceal his mistakes before he started spinning around on the journeyman's recycling wheel. Osgood never believed such talk. The three-time Stanley Cup champion has never deserved to be marginalized, but it was only during this latest run to NHL glory that Osgood reached his rightful place in the goaltending universe.

After taking over for Dominik Hasek in Game 5 of Detroit's opening-round series against Nashville, Osgood had 14 wins in 18 games, including shutouts in each of the Wings' first two victories against Pittsburgh in the Cup finals and a 1.55 goals-against average for the playoffs. From a backup on his way out, Osgood is now one of the stars of the Stanley Cup champion Red Wings.

Osgood's most glorious rebound started with a decision to get on his knees. "I had been an old-fashioned stand-up goalie my whole life," he recalls. "I resisted the butterfly style for years, but other guys had success with it, and if it could make me better...."

So in August 2004 Osgood began unlearning the mantra that he must keep to his skates while blocking the puck. He started falling to his knees in training drills while kicking his legs out to the side, dropping faster and squeezing his pads tighter to minimize the window a shooter has to exploit a butterfly goalie's five-hole. He concentrated on getting his chest and shoulders, rather than just his stick and glove, in front of the puck when squaring to the shooter. For a 10-year veteran schooled in the ways of stand-up goaltending, it was akin to seeing a power pitcher learn a sidearm knuckleball late in his career, and his new hybrid approach helped alter the negative perceptions that have dogged him.

For example, instead of the 2-0 shutout against the Dallas Stars in Game 6 of the 1998 Western Conference finals, people recalled Jamie Langenbrunner's stone skip that beat Osgood from center ice in the Game 5 loss with hyperbole until it became a 37-hopper that beat him from the concession stands. And while it's true that Osgood held Lord Stanley's hardware aloft after the Red Wings' sweep of the Capitals in '98, when he had a 2.12 goals-against average in 22 playoff games, more people remember him crying in front of his locker after Detroit lost Game 7 of the opening round in '94 to San Jose. The Sharks, a first-year playoff team, were enormous underdogs to the Wings, who were coming off a 100-point season. At the time Osgood said he felt "like a bomb just hit me."

MAYBE IT'S BECAUSE OSGOOD LOOKS MORE like the water boy's kid brother than a grizzled puck stopper that people beat on him like a speed bag. The headline OS-BAD was too easy for the papers. And long before it steeled him, it flustered him. "I let the comments get to me for a long time," he says. "It got to the point where I'd try to make 500 saves before the game started, because I was worried I wouldn't do enough during the game. I was wrung out before they dropped the puck."

A young Chris Osgood worried about perception long before he became an NHL goalie. As a first-grader growing up in Edmonton, he was so concerned that kids would give him a hard time because his father was the school principal that he would tell them his dad was actually a fireman. If the kids connected the last names? Just a coincidence.

Maybe worry and perception even influenced Wings coach Mike Babcock before Game 1 of Detroit's opening-round series against the Nashville Predators when the coach sat his ace goalie, the man who started in the All-Star Game and had a league-leading 2.09 goals-against average in favor of the 43-year-old Hasek, skating ever gamely away from his Hart Trophy résumé on bum knees and shredded hips. Ah, but Hasek was the winner, right? The man the Wings would call on in games of consequence. Hello? Didn't anyone realize what Osgood had gone through to get back to this stage?

Wings coach Scotty Bowman never really warmed to the man who played more than half the games in '97 but sat on the bench for most of the playoffs while Mike Vernon led them to a title. Even after Osgood kept the starting spot through the '98 championship, his name dominated the trade rumors. In 2001 the Wings acquired Hasek and, figuring they had their upgrade and could ill-afford to keep a $4 million backup, banished Osgood to waivers. The Islanders snatched him off the wire, and he still helped lead a group of peashooters into the playoffs in '02. The next year New York shipped Osgood off to St. Louis. All the while, he missed his old team. "Being away, I grew to appreciate the professionalism with which they ran the organization," he says. "It was on the ice, off the ice, the way they built the team, found the ideal roles for everyone, respected the tradition of the franchise. Man, I had it good."

St. Louis declined to re-sign him after the 2003-04 season. Then the lockout hit, and Osgood found himself on a golfing trip with Ken Holland, the Wings' general manager, who had known him from their days in Medicine Hat, Alberta. (Holland was a scout when Osgood played junior hockey, and the two fiddled around in a ball hockey league.) Holland considered Osgood a buddy who always kept the off-season friendship above the boss-client, and now boss—ex-client, relationship that existed during the winter. "We really didn't talk hockey when we spent time together," Holland says, "and Chris was very good about keeping the integrity of that relationship."

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