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Reinvented Osgood aims for another Stanley Cup

by Larry Wigge

Red Wings' goaltender Chris Osgood has come off the bench to lead Detroit to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in his 14-year NHL career.
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Chris Osgood relieved Dominik Hasek early in Game 4 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He's been so good since then that "The Dominator" has become "The Backup."

I asked him after Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals — when he posted his ninth-consecutive victory in this year's Playoffs — if he felt like he had to put out a fire with his performance against Nashville when he replaced Hasek. He laughed and then told a story he was actually a little embarrassed to tell. It goes back to first grade in Peace River, Alberta.

"The teacher asked us to write a story about our fathers," Osgood said. "I wrote that my father was a fireman and embellished it pretty good about all the fires he had to put out. The teacher approached me about it later, knowing that my dad was the principal of the grade school.

"I just told her that I didn't want the other kids to know. I thought it was embarrassing that he worked at the same school I attended."

A little lesson in creative writing?

"Exactly," smiled Osgood.

You don't have to be creative to write about how this 35-year-old goaltender reinvented himself as a goaltender a couple of years ago during the work stoppage. He paid a visit to Windsor goaltending instructor Stan Matwijiw.

"I told Stan I wanted a complete makeover. I told him my style wasn't working anymore. He just looked at me like I was crazy," said Osgood, who has 418 NHL wins between the regular season and Playoffs, including having a hand in Stanley Cup titles in 1997 and '98 (Mike Vernon was the goalie of record in the Final in '97, but Osgood got all 16 wins the next year).

"I remember growing up near Edmonton and watching Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog playing in goal for those great Oilers teams (Chris' dad, John, had a pair of Oilers' season tickets — and still does). But it's hard to describe what it's like being in goal, all alone back there, the last line of defense. 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. But ..."

Osgood stopped at that point to deflect a couple of other thoughts he had rolling around in his head before he continued, saying, "When I started out, there were no goalie coaches. My first real goalie coach was when I was 21 or 22. In those days, they just said, 'Stop the puck. We don't care how you do it.'

"You were expected to stand up. 'Stand up. Stay in front of your net!' In fact, the coaches would yell at you if you went down. Now, your first instinct is to go down. In fact, I spend most of my time on my knees."

But that doesn't totally explain the reinvention of Ozzie.

"When I was playing with Mike Vernon in Detroit, he told me how he had to go back to relearn the position from a goalie guru somewhere. So that's what gave me the thought after it looked like St. Louis wasn't going to bring me back after the (work stoppage)," Osgood recalled. "Older goalies tend to reach a lot for the puck — and I was beginning to feel that. Younger goalies are taught to whole their whole bodies and stay in front of the puck.

"Stan started working with me on that, making sure I have my chest and shoulders in front of the puck. I guess the theory is similar to teaching a catcher to block pitches that come at him in all directions."

In the three seasons before he began working with Matwijiw, Osgood had an 84-66-20 record, with a 2.51 goals-against average and 11 shutouts. In the three years since returning to Detroit, he's gone 58-18-15, with a 2.38 with six shutouts. He capped that off this season with his first All-Star Game appearance and a 27-9-4 record, 2.04 GAA, .914 save percentage and four shutouts.

While some people are quick to see the worst in things — like how Osgood was kind of embarrassed at the All-Star Game when a group of YoungStars lit him up — the smallish goaltender who has always had a burning desire to compete and a little bit of a chip on his shoulders had all the confidence in the world that he could still dominate.

As the Wings enter the Stanley Cup Final against Pittsburgh, it's no longer a "1 and 1-A" tandem in Detroit's net with Dominik Hasek the former and Osgood the latter. In fact, Osgood goes into the Final with a 10-2 record, a League-leading 1.60 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. That includes nine consecutive wins since relieving Hasek in Game 4 against the Predators.

"I felt pretty good the minute I stepped in in Nashville," Osgood said. "I just approached the season by doing the right things in practice and off the ice to make sure I was ready to play at any time. I wasn't second-guessing myself. I was ready and prepared.

"I always wanted to be the guy or I would've stopped playing a while ago. I never, ever said, 'God, I love sitting here and getting paid, this is awesome.' The Red Wings are always about the team, so I didn't want to be selfish. I did what I had to do, but I wanted to play. And I always knew I still could."

Osgood's nine-game winning streak was the best playoff run since Patrick Roy won 11 in a row for Montreal during the Canadiens’ 1993 Stanley Cup run.

More important to Ozzie is that the series-clinching win against Dallas in the conference finals gave him 48 career wins in a Detroit uniform, surpassing the franchise record set by Hall of Famer Terry Sawchuk.

"Something I've learned as I got older is don't worry about things that are out of my control," Osgood said. "I don't try to play the game before it's started. I rest my mind, so that when I get on the ice, I'm completely mentally ready. I've seen goalies who've tried to stop 100 shots before the game started. On the day of the game, they won't talk to anybody. Everybody has to be quiet around them at the pregame skate. By the time the game's started, mentally they're drained.

"After the (work stoppage), I've tried to change that so I'm mentally fresh and ready to go when the game starts. I learned that from Dom — because Dom is so relaxed and keeps himself in a nice zone prior to the game. Then when the game starts, he's 100 percent on."

Well, he was, until Osgood replaced him.

"I've never seen Ozzie look so relaxed in goal," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "He's not scrambling around like he once did. He's real solid positionally. Bottom line: He's strong for the entire 60 minutes ... and that gives the whole team confidence."

Dallas Drake, who has played with Osgood with the Red Wings and the St. Louis Blues, agrees with Osgood's suggestions that his style has evolved over his career to the point that he's a better goaltender, fundamentally speaking, at 35 than he was at 25.

"When you have a duo like this, it's hard to say who's No. 1 ... or even if you have to make a distinction," Drake observed. "I've seen Ozzie as a kid in Detroit, played against him a lot of years when I was in Winnipeg, Phoenix and St. Louis and now I've played with him with the Blues and Red Wings. The thing that has never changed is his competitiveness. I think now he's even a smarter goaltender. He plays his angles even better than I remembered — even when we were together in St. Louis just a couple of years ago."

Osgood agrees that his remodeled self is better than the original.

"All I know is that I feel like I'm a better goalie than I was my first time around in Detroit," he said. "I'd like to think that this old dog has learned a few of those new tricks. I'll tell you one thing: I haven't lost my hunger to be a No. 1 goalie. Not at all.

"Being a backup to a guy like Dom has helped me, because it's kept me driven. Dom and I have a good relationship. There's no jealousy if he carries the load ... or I do. But the older I get, the more I appreciate things. I've always felt that I knew when I was playing well when I look forward to each game. And that's how I feel now. Coming back here has been great for me.

"I feel like I've got another great chance to win a Stanley Cup, and that's huge. All I want to do is run with the opportunity I've been given."

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