Without Wings, West road remains rough

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Scotty Bowman was in the Fishing Lodge, the small private club on ice level at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The Red Wings-Mighty Ducks game was in its early stages Wednesday night, and Bowman was viewing the ESPN broadcast. He was watching nervously, anxiously, perhaps even with foreboding. Finally, with the score still 1-1, Bowman got up and announced: "I can't watch this anymore." It was not an editorial assessment of the Wings' play, but a testament to his sense of helplessness after all those years of having a such an integral role in the Wings' on-ice fate.

In his role as a consultant, Bowman was on a scouting mission for the Red Wings, watching the Colorado-Minnesota series. Appropriately, given his vantage point for the start of the Red Wings' Game 4 against Anaheim, he also was on a fishing expedition of sorts, attending two games, practices and morning skates.

In St. Paul, Bowman sat with Wings pro scout Dan Belisle near the top of the lower-bowl at the practice and skate, taking notes both mental and literal about the Avalanche, who most likely would be Detroit's second-round opponent in a renewal of the league's showcase rivalry over the past eight years.

Bowman didn't buy the notion that the Avs, and coach Tony Granato, were taking significant notice of his presence. "The Avs aren't worried
about me," he said at one point. "They have more important things to worry about."

So, in a sense, did Bowman, living in semi-retirement in Buffalo and venturing out for these special missions on behalf of the Wings. At the invitation of general manager Ken Holland, Bowman watched the first two games of the Anaheim-Detroit series in Joe Louis Arena and witnessed first-hand the Wings' nudge to the precipice. But he knew that if the Wings could get Ducks goalie Jean Sebastien-Giguere out of that zone, they could get back in the series -- as they had last year, when Detroit dropped its first two postseason games to Vancouver.

Yet, as Bowman watched the telecast of Game 4 from Anaheim (when he could bear to), his scouting mission was in danger of being rendered moot. Bowman ventured back to his nearby hotel and, for a while, nervously sat in the lobby and received periodic updates. Then he returned to his room.

The end came after midnight, Central Time, when Gary Thorne described Steve Rucchin's overtime goal and Orange County fans were climbing back on the hockey bandwagon even as the Ducks unpiled. Back in Detroit, the post-mortems already were beginning. In the first playoff series after Bowman's unsteady skate into (semi-)retirement, the Wings had folded in the face of one of the most larcenous single-series goaltending showings in recent memory.

As Bowman watched in his room, the Avalanche were in the air, returning to Denver following the 3-1 victory over the Wild that gave them a 3-1 lead in the series. In the bar at Bowman's St. Paul hotel, a throng watched the game, and most of the viewers were members of an ESPN television crew. (Note to ESPN comptroller: Everyone was drinking 7-Up, and the late-night menu is very costly, which is how the tabs got so high.)

The reaction, even among that group, probably was typical among congregated viewers outside Detroit. The guy in the Tigers hat was angry. Wings haters -- and there are some -- were ecstatic. Fans of the underdog, any underdog, thought it invigorating that the defending champion was eliminated. But those who were looking forward to a reprise of a stirring Colorado-Detroit rivalry, one which can be promoted with recounts and old tape clips of past boilovers and heroics, were disappointed.

The shocking upset changes the landscape of the postseason. Even after the Ducks took a 3-0 lead in the series, the Avalanche already were fielding questions about the Wings' possible elimination. Between Games 3 and 4 of both series, Granato acknowledged that he was hearing from others that the playoff draw was "set up" for the Avalanche.

"No, that's not it," he said decisively. Granato not only wouldn't be stupid enough to belittle any of the Western Conference's playoff field, he wouldn't dismiss the Red Wings. "Until the last breath is out, you don't count any champion out," Granato said.

The champion is through.

If Colorado, as expected, finishes off the upstart Wild -- still one of the NHL's success stories regardless of the result of this series -- the Avalanche next faces a series against either the St. Louis-Vancouver winner (if Dallas beats Edmonton), or the Oilers (if Edmonton knocks off the Stars).

Yes, that's an "easier" draw, and if the other series go as expected, a Dallas-Anaheim series would set up as a referendum on whether Giguere can keep this up, among other issues.

But plotting the difficulty of a playoff draw always comes back to this: At this time of year, at least within the West, the only guarantee is that the tasks all are monumental. There have been some walkovers in the Cup finals over the past eight years, of course, because of the lack of parity and even some "fluke" results in the East, but that doesn't seem a significant possibility this time around.

The ongoing debate back in Denver was whether not playing the Red Wings in the postseason would take some of the fun out of the playoffs, but the reality is that few even remember that Colorado didn't face the Wings in the 2001 championship run -- thanks to the Kings' first-round upset of the Wings. (Maybe it's the Southern California water.)

The Wings' demise changes things. The permutations and variations are impossible to specify, given the hypothetical nature of the proposition. But if we were to play Harry Turtledove and imitate the master of alternative history novels, the most likely scenario was that Detroit would have prevailed in another matchup with the Avalanche. Also, though, even if Colorado had gotten by the Wings, on the basis of another rising-to-the-occasion showing by Patrick Roy that could have erased some of the sting of his series-swinging Statue of Liberty gaffe a year ago, it would have been draining.

None of those possible Colorado matchups in the Western Conference semifinals would be walkovers. In fact, if the Canucks manage to come back, a Colorado-Vancouver series even would have the potential to be as volatile and testing as a Wings-Avalanche series -- and maybe even more so. A Blues-Avalanche series, full of intrigue from the ownership boxes (the Blues' Bill Laurie and the Avs' Stan Kroenke are brothers-in-law, linked to the Walton family of WalMart fortune and fame), to the goaltending matchup between Roy and one-time fight foe Chris Osgood, would be a reprise of an emotional 2001 conference final. And even an Oilers series would be tough and testing.

The Wings' elimination dilutes some of the drama and perhaps lessens the task for a potential Western Conference champion -- but only by a smidge.

There is good news and bad news for the Eastern Conference: The Red Wings (30 points in 22 interconference games), Avalanche (27) and Stars (29) all had similar records against the East this season. But the Wings were 5-2-1 against the Atlantic Division, the home of the Devils and Flyers, while Colorado was 6-1-0-1 and Dallas was only 1-2-2. Significant? Maybe not. Yet it's one piece of data to toss into the computer. A Cup win involves bits and pieces of providence, and even an infinitesimal lessening of the magnitude of the task on one side of the draw can be an issue.

This much we know: The Wings are out as a threat. To the Avalanche, the Stars and everyone else. The rest will play itself out.

And Scotty Bowman probably will be watching that, too.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, Simon and Schuster's "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," is available nationwide.