-- Come Monday night, the Detroit Red Wings
can be partying with the Stanley Cup.
Just don't let the Red Wings players in on that little fact. They know they lead three games to one after Saturday night's taut 2-1 victory in Game 4 at Mellon Arena, but they don't want to think about the ramifications of being one win away from a title.
"I'm sure people have already handed out the Cup in Detroit," said forward Darren McCarty, reinserted into the lineup after Tomas Holmstrom was a no-go for Game 4. "We still have to play the game. We're a veteran team and we understand that. We'll use that to our advantage and won't get caught looking ahead."
Experience is one of the byproducts of Detroit's veteran-laden lineup. Players like Nicklas Lidstrom, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and McCarty have won three Cups during their time in Detroit. Imports like Brian Rafalski, who won two Cups with New Jersey, are also savvy in the ways of win-and-you're-champion games.
"This is where it gets tough," said Draper. "Your mind starts to wander to what could happen. You just want to get into a bubble and go home and make sure that you don't get caught up in the sideshow that is coming."
The one where people are fawning all over you -- eager to extol your greatness. The one where people are calling for tickets that don't exist. The one where you need to make plans to get family and friends in town for what can be a clinching game. The one where the Stanley Cup will be in the building, all shined up and ready to be presented.
But the Red Wings have been here before. In the back-to-back titles a decade ago, the Red Wings closed out those series in the minimum four games. In 2002, they put down Carolina in five.
Along the way, those experiences have contributed to an institutional knowledge that few franchises can draw upon. Somebody at almost every level of the franchise -- from GM Ken Holland to PR Director John Hahn, to the players -- knows what lies ahead. There is no mystery and no excitement of the unknown to keep players unnecessarily on their toes.
"You know what to expect," Lidstrom said. "I think that is one difference when you have been in situations like this. Because you know what it feels like, you know what you have to do."
What exactly do the Wings have to do?
They have to play like the best-of-7 series is tied 3-3. They have to play their best game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Monday night.
"You still have to show up and play your best, too," Lidstrom said after Saturday's Game 4 win. "You know you have to go out and play with the same type of game we played tonight -- a hard-fought game. That's the way we have to approach the next game, too. This is not over yet. We have to win one more game to be able to win it all."
That's easy to say, but not as easy to do. Too many teams have been caught drifting as immortality comes within their grasp -- teams as good, if not better than these Red Wings.
Twice in this playoff run, the Wings have already been caught looking ahead and paid a stiff price.
In Round 1, they went up 2-0 on Nashville and appeared to have passage booked to the next round. Then, the Predators won their home games, turning the first round into a best-of-3 series. Detroit took the next two games to advance. Then, in the last round, Detroit needed three games to close out Dallas after opening the series with a 3-0 lead in games.
"Last series, we had a chance to close out Dallas and we didn't do it," said McCarty. "We also didn't do it against Nashville. So, we are going to use those things as learning experiences and go from there."
Goalie Chris Osgood, who knows a little something about being on the precipice of a championship, said thoughts of celebrating on the Joe Louis Arena ice will not dance through his mind. He will not think about lifting that trophy over his head yet again, nor of the sweet taste of the champagne that could soon spill from the Cup.
"I'm not going to think about anything on the ride home tonight," Osgood said. "I'll clear my mind all day tomorrow and not even think about anything. I'll just come to the rink and be prepared to play another game."
Osgood's mental toughness has served him well throughout this playoff run. But it is folly to suggest that everyone can be as focused and single-minded as the All-Star goalie.
Some players will certainly go on flights of fancy as the countdown begins, especially the younger ones that are on this stage for the first time. That is human nature, after all. But, the Red Wings know that they will have to fight that urge.
For that reason, the Red Wings don't want to hear about their opportunity to clinch the most cherished trophy in all of hockey.
"A lot of people will tell you how good you are right now," says Draper. "It's very easy to get caught up in all that, but we can't. We just have to stay focused. Hopefully, Game 5 comes fast."