Published June 27, 2016
One of the best clutch performers in Red Wings history had a very inauspicious start to his playoff career—one in which he would eventually dominate.
Die-hard Red Wings fans can still recall, some 22 years later, the video images of Chris Osgood, 21 years old, weeping softly in front of his locker. It was late-April, 1994.
The Red Wings had goalie problems in those days. They were an annual playoff team but too often the post-season dreams died due to shaky goaltending.
In a move born of desperation, GM Bryan Murray traded a goalie for a goalie—which in of itself smacks of desperation by both teams—when he dealt fan non-favorite Tim Cheveldae to Winnipeg for MSU grad Bob Essensa on March 8, 1994.
The gambit didn’t work.
The Red Wings were in a first-round match with the third-year San Jose Sharks. The best-of-seven series had an odd format—though agreed to by the Red Wings. The teams would play a 2-3-2 format, as opposed to the traditional 2-2-1-1-1.
This meant the three middle games would be played out west, to save on travel. The Red Wings OK’d the change because, frankly, they didn’t think it would much matter, since the Sharks finished with 18 points fewer than Detroit in the regular season.
But it mattered, quite a bit.
One of the reasons was the play of Essensa in net.
Osgood was a rookie and played in 41 games in 1993-94, but Murray and coach Scotty Bowman felt that the veteran Essensa would be a better choice to start in the playoffs.
The Sharks won Game 1 in Detroit, 5-4, and already the 2-3-2 format was looking dicey.
Bowman switched to the rookie Osgood in Game 2, and Ozzie pitched a 4-0 shutout. Still, the Red Wings faced the prospect of three straight games in a hostile arena.
Osgood started Game 3 and Detroit won, 3-2. It looked like the series would be under control, after all.
But Osgood faltered in Game 4, a 4-3 Sharks victory. So Bowman switched back to his veteran Essensa for Game 5. Perhaps the Hall of Fame coach panicked a little.
Essensa was awful in Game 5, giving up four goals on just 19 shots. He was pulled in favor of Osgood, who allowed both shots he faced to elude him. The Red Wings lost, 6-4.
Bowman returned to Osgood in Game 6, and the Red Wings won, 7-1.
That set up a Game 7 that no one expected the Red Wings to have to play against the upstart Sharks.
With less than seven minutes to play in the third period of a tie game, Osgood left his net to play the puck. The results were disastrous.
There are iconic, gut-wrenching plays in Detroit sports history that will never be stomached by the fans.
Isiah Thomas’ pass that Larry Bird stole in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals.
David Ortiz’ grand slam in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS.
The non-pass interference call that went against the Lions in Dallas in the 2014-15 playoffs.
Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary that beat the Lions last December.
Osgood played the puck but his pass along the boards was snatched up by Jamie Baker, who promptly snapped the puck into the open net before Osgood could recover.
The goal proved to be the series winner for the Sharks. The Red Wings were booed off the Joe Louis Arena ice during and after the post-series handshake.
Afterward, in a deathly quiet Red Wings locker room, the rookie Osgood faced the music. Speaking to the media, the 21 year-old openly wept at his blunder. The weight of the entire universe had fallen on him, and he collapsed under it.
Like I said, no true Red Wings fan will forget the haunting images of Chris Osgood as we saw him in perhaps the worst moment of his hockey life.
But that was then.
Chris Osgood ended up being one of the best big-game performers in Red Wings history. Maybe in all of hockey history.
That’s not opinion.
Osgood won two Stanley Cups as a starter—10 years apart (1998 and 2008)—and a third as a backup (1997). He posted 15 playoff shutouts and had a save percentage in the post-season of .916 to go along with his 2.16 GAA.
In the two Cup wins as a starter, Osgood could easily have been named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner for MVP of the playoffs. That he didn’t is no indictment on his performance in either year.
In 2008, as a 35 year-old, Osgood posted a 1.55 GAA and a .930 save percentage in the playoffs, with three shutouts. Ridiculous numbers.
In ’08, coach Mike Babcock started the playoffs with Dominik Hasek in net. But after splitting the first four games in the first round with Nashville—and with Hasek as shaky as a bobblehead—Babcock made the bold decision to switch to Osgood for Game 5.
Babcock’s reasoning was simple.
“The puck has been going into the net too much,” he said, explaining the switch—and the demotion of a sure-fire Hall of Famer.
Osgood made almost 17,000 saves in his NHL career, but his rescue of the Red Wings in the 2008 playoffs might have been his biggest. It was clutch goaltending at its best. His first game was a Game 5 overtime win against the Predators and Ozzie didn’t stop until he hoisted the Cup in Pittsburgh.
I knew we would engage in a spirited discussion over whether the Alberta native Osgood should be enshrined. But now that we are in the third year of Osgood’s eligibility, the debate is growing in passion, because he was never considered a first ballot guy, anyway. As the years tick by, there will be more clamoring for his induction by the pro-Osgood folks. And the opponents in that debate will only dig their heels in.
Osgood’s body of work, if you just look at the hard numbers, would warrant a good argument to vote Ozzie into the Hall.
401 victories, including 50 shutouts. A career GAA of 2.49. A career save percentage of .905.
Now, 2.49 and .905 aren’t eye-popping numbers these days, when scoring is at a premium in the NHL. But for a goalie whose NHL career started in 1993, they aren’t numbers to sneeze at.
And there’s all that clutch play in the playoffs for which Osgood was famous—after that horrific start in 1994.
The trouble with an Osgood HOF candidacy is that he played on such powerful teams. In a way, that works against him.
He was never considered irreplaceable, and that’s another strike against him.
His win total, his critics would tell you, was propped up by having a roster filled with Hall of Famers playing in front of him.
But I keep coming back to his playoff performances. If I needed a playoff game to be won, there are only three goalies that played in Detroit who I would ask for.
They would be, in this order, Terry Sawchuk, Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek (his 2002 play was phenomenal).
Two of the above names are in the Hall of Fame, and they were no-brainers.
Osgood is no no-brainer, but I’m not sure that he’s a no, either.
The debate over Osgood for the Hall will be wonderful to play out, whether he makes it or not. Even as he gives his induction speech—if he’s so fortunate—there will be naysayers to his enshrinement.
That’s OK. Hall of Fame debates are among the most fun in sports.
I don’t have a vote, but if I did, I’d cast a yes.
There are those who say that if you have to debate over a guy’s qualifications at length, then he’s probably not a Hall of Fame player.
There are all sorts of Hall of Fame players. The no-brainers, the mildly debated and the hotly contested. Guys who wait for years because the appreciation for their careers grows in direct proportion to how long they’ve been retired.
Osgood’s career may not scream Hall of Fame, but even if it whispers it, and the voters give him admission, he’s a HOFer just the same.
I’d vote yes.