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Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood the difference in this Stanley Cup @NHLdotcom

PITTSBURGH - It wasn't so long ago that none of this seemed possible for Chris Osgood.

When the Detroit Red Wings sent their goaltender home for a few days in February, who would have guessed that he'd be making a strong pitch for the Conn Smythe Trophy? Even as this star-studded Stanley Cup final kicked off over the weekend, how many people figured he'd be the biggest difference-maker in Games 1 and 2?

But there was Osgood turning back the talented Pittsburgh Penguins, allowing just two goals during the first two games of a championship series that could be heading for a quicker conclusion than most would have imagined.

If it ends with another championship for the Motor City, Osgood will be the odds-on favourite to be named playoff MVP. And when you listen to coach Mike Babcock describe the play of his goaltender this spring, it seems like a fitting honour.

"In this series and in probably every series at times, he's had to be really good for us," Babcock said Monday. "And he's found a way to do that. Lots of nights he doesn't get a lot of action for a long period of time, and we make a mistake and give up quality, quality chances and he's there for us.

"He's played real well for us and given us a chance."

There might not be a happier player among a very happy Red Wings team than Osgood right now. He has an opportunity to win his fourth Stanley Cup ring - three of which will have come as the starter, matching the total of guys like Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy.

Most hockey pundits probably wouldn't place him in the same category as those two contemporaries, but Osgood is making a strong case for himself as a top-notch playoff performer.

He holds a career 10-2 record in Stanley Cup games and considers this his favourite time of year.

"I just enjoy that the level of competition is so high," said Osgood. "I enjoy going to rinks and playing opposing teams. ... I really look forward to (Game 3 on Tuesday night). It will be a lot of fun playing in Pittsburgh again. The rink will be loud.

"You know in the regular season the rinks aren't the same. The playoffs are loud, the atmosphere is great."

Many of the biggest plays of this Stanley Cup have involved Osgood - there's the breakaway stop he made on Evgeni Malkin in Game 1 and the glove save he made on the Russian sniper one night later. And don't forget the pad he got on Sidney Crosby's deke attempt in the third period of Game 2.

The focus on Osgood during these playoffs is bound to be followed with a growing sentiment that he warrants strong consideration for the 2010 Canadian Olympic team.

Simply getting an invite to the summer evaluation camp would rank as a serious achievement for a guy that has been overlooked by the hockey world for years. Wearing a shirt that read "Made In Detroit" on Monday night, Osgood spoke fondly of a place where he's received plenty of love.

"I get respect in Detroit," he said. "That means the most to me. Playing in front of my fans there, they've been great to me for 15 years now. So that's what means the most to me is the people in Michigan and Detroit. ...

"Hopefully one day when I'm done playing, I think that will come (in other places too)."

The most amazing part of Osgood's performance during these playoffs is how tough everything had been for him since winning the Stanley Cup last spring.

He spoke candidly on the eve of this year's final about a regular season that saw him post the worst goals-against average and save percentage of his entire career.

"By no means did I enjoy the first half of the season," said Osgood. "It was a struggle. I wasn't mentally prepared to start the year. I know that sounds bad but that's the truth. I mean, coming off last season I didn't do the right things to be ready."

He wasn't the only member of the team to experience that kind of letdown but his funk lasted longer than most others.

Eventually things came to a head in February, when GM Ken Holland summoned Osgood to his office and ordered him to take 10 days away from the team to spend some time with goaltending coach Jim Bedard and refocus.

That was a major turning point.

"I got a good break," said Osgood. "Got to work on some things with Jimmy and cleared my mind. It was kind of like that was my new starting point to get ready for the playoffs. It was really good."

Through all of Osgood's struggles, the Red Wings organization continued to believe in him and support him.

That faith appears to be paying dividends now that the franchise is just two wins away from its fifth Stanley Cup in the last 12 seasons.

"His focus this year was like the rest of ours - not very good," said Babcock. "Now he has that back and he's had it back for some time. He's played well for us.

"You know, he's got to feel pretty good about himself."

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