ESCANABA — I’ve been a Red Wings fan since I can remember, but I never did settle on a favorite player.
They’ve had too many good players over the years: Yzerman, Fedorov, Vernon, Draper, Osgood, Zetterberg, Datsyuk. It’s like my favorite color of Skittles - how can you settle on just one?
But I have one least favorite player: Andreas Lilja.
The Swedish third-line defenseman whose gut-busting defensive zone turnovers proved the death blow in the Wings’ last two playoff exits (Anaheim in ‘07, Edmonton in ‘06) has inspired all sorts of curse words, angry epithets and general hand-wringing.
On Petr Sykora’s Game 5 winner in triple OT, it didn’t take me long to find a big red 3 on the ice right in front of the net.
When Marian Hossa’s goal nearly gave me a heart attack in the third period Wednesday, who was out there missing his stick? Lilja.
Somehow, he managed to be a minus-2 on the best team in hockey. I think I could have suited up with this bunch and at least be a plus-5 and I can’t skate.
I’ve blamed him for most of the Red Wings’ 26 losses this year, not to mention $4 gas prices, the breakup of the Beatles and the Great Chicago Fire.
But after Monday night, I’ll give the guy a break.
Because no matter how many times he takes a dumb penalty or coughs up the puck - he can’t undo this season. In fact, coming up with unprintable names for the guy has been rather fun.
What would the Red Wings be without Lilja?
They might be almost too perfect. Yankee-esque, even. It wouldn’t be fun.
Look at some of history’s greatest artifacts: The Liberty Bell, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They stand the test of time because of their flaws. There are even several misspelled names on the Stanley Cup itself. Just ask 2002 Red Wings back-up goalie Manny “Lagace”.
For example, if Lilja hadn’t fallen on his rear end while skating alone in his own defensive zone in the second period of Game 2, the Penguins might not have gotten a scoring chance, and Chris Osgood could have fallen asleep and let in a goal later in the period (of course, provided Pittsburgh could generate a shot).
Meanwhile, Mike Ilitch’s other big property (and I’m not talking about Little Caesar’s) has made Lilja look downright competent in April and May. Maybe we can put him in the starting lineup? We know he’s good at hitting from behind in key situations.
Think of it like Todd Jones: if it weren’t for him, you could turn a Tigers game off when they went into the ninth with a five-run lead. Likewise, Lilja keeps Wings fans honest and keeps the games exciting, like a Swedish rollercoaster.
So, I hope he enjoys his championship ring and I hope they spell his name right on the Stanley Cup.
All is forgiven, Andreas.
Well, at least until October.