Osgood proves he isn't Wings' weakest link
Chris Osgood has raised the Stanley Cup overhead three times with the Red Wings. But every spring, he listens to the rhetoric that is passed off as gospel when we talk about how important goaltending is in the playoffs, how puck-stopping is what it's all about. And how Osgood can't possibly win another Cup with his smoke-and-mirrors game.
The wolves were out again this spring, when Ozzie was struggling with a 3.09 goals-against average and a pedestrian .889 save percentage in the regular season. Yep, poor goaltending was the Achilles' heel for the Wings once again, right?
Well, here he is again, up 2-0 in the Western Conference finals against the Chicago Blackhawks ... armed with a 10-3 record, 2.04 GAA and .925 save percentage.
And a lot of the experts are eating crow ... again.
"I don't care what people say," Osgood said confidently, yet quietly amidst the phalanx of cameras, microphones and notepads. "I've played 15 years, so I know it's no fluke."
It's that quiet confidence, that bit of swagger that pushes Osgood now. Not a desire to say “I told you so."
There are no do-overs in Osgood's profession. Chris had good role models to watch when he was growing up near Edmonton at a time when Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog were asked to just make saves -- not every save, mind you, just the important ones. The Oilers, like Osgood's Red Wings, would score enough goals to win. The goaltenders were asked to react, be proactive and not take their team out of the game.
"It's hard to describe what it's like being in goal, all alone back there," Osgood said. “During the game, you probably make 100 split-second decisions. You don't think about it, you just do it. I don't think and make decisions 100 times. You just try to do the best you can out there, try to keep that red light behind you from drawing attention to a mistake you might make."
Sounds simple, eh? Well, then why is this goalie, who was given up for dead by the New York Islanders and St. Louis Blues, better than ever?
"I don't take myself as serious as I used to," Osgood said. "You tend to think when you're younger that the whole world is looking at you when it really isn't. That's probably the biggest difference for me.
“When I was young, I listened to what everybody said about how badly I played. I have more fun now. I used to get so worked up, I'd try to stop 500 shots before the game even started. I'd go through everything in my mind and tire myself out."
This season, you could argue, was different for Osgood. His struggles to get playoff sharp led him to getting a 10-game break in late February ordered by GM Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock. The goal? To get his mind straight.
"Physically, I was there, but mentally, I wasn't," Osgood said with emphasis on the mind games he was playing on himself. "Last year ... the playoffs were so long. I remember thinking out loud, 'We were at the top of the mountain, now we're not -- and we have to go all the way back up again and there's a long way to go.' "
Osgood said that mental part of the game can be lost briefly, but never for long with Babcock barking at him.
"It's funny," Osgood said. "I almost hear his voice in my sleep sometimes. 'Stay out of the paint ... and be big.' "
"If we just go on numbers, there are some guys with better numbers that you don't want starting for you in the playoffs," Babcock said. "I'm just a big believer that if you've done it before, and Ozzie has, two times as a starter and one time as a backup, then you have a chance to do it again."
Holland, a former goaltender with an affinity for goalies, remembers back to the days when he was the Western Canada scout for the Wings and lived in Medicine Hat and first saw Ozzie play.
"After a while he would show up at the arena and play ball hockey with us," the Wings GM said of his affection for the little netminder. "He became like a fifth child to me."
To this day, Holland says the toughest move he ever had to make was telling Chris he was no longer wanted in Detroit in 2001, when the Wings started the season with Dominik Hasek as their No. 1 goalie.
Time away from Detroit made Osgood appreciate his home away from home even more. After the lockout, St. Louis didn't bring him back. Babcock remembers listening to Ozzie talk about how he had reinvented himself style-wise during the lockout. Holland, well, he knew how much better his fifth child would be upon his return.
"I remember that phone call I made to him in August of 2005, offering him a contract with the Wings," Holland said. "I could almost feel him jump through the phone."
Holland says the "new" Ozzie is perfect for the Wings, adding that it's difficult to find a goalie with the right mental makeup to play behind the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart and Co. providing great defense.
"By no means are we going to win solely because of me, nor lose solely because of me," Osgood said. "Why we're so successful is that we don't rely on one player. Whether it's Hank (Zetterberg), Pav (Datsyuk), Nick, Raffy, Mule (Johan Franzen), anybody. We're a team."
"To me, the best part of Ozzie is his makeup," Holland said, underscoring the mental toughness he sees in Chris. "You won't find anyone more mentally tough. He's laid back, but there's a passion burning inside of him. It takes a strong mental toughness to stand there for 15 minutes and then -- boom -- you have to make a big save.
"I'm not going to tell you that he is one of the top five or six goalies in the game, but for our team he is perfect."
Said Osgood, "I pride myself on making the big saves at the big times."
And whether the critics like it or not, he has the success to back it up.