June 5, 2008 at 3:37 am

WINGS REIGN!

Wojnowski: Winning Stanley never grows old

Nicklas Lidstrom hands off to Dallas Drake as the Wings celebrate their 11th Stanley Cup, Wednesday in Pittsburgh. (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)

PITTSBURGH -- They had waited long enough and skated hard enough, endured sudden turns and crushing twists, until finally, finally, the Red Wings went ahead and took what they had to have, what they've been chasing all year, what they always believed was theirs.

They took it in gasping, grasping fashion -- fitting fashion, really -- with Chris Osgood swiping at Pittsburgh's final, desperate shot. As the puck slid past the open goal, the crowd shrieked and the horn sounded, and there was the briefest pause to see if it really was over.

It was. And then it began, and now it begins. The Wings leaped on the ice in celebration-exhilaration-exhaustion, and launched another rollicking Detroit summer.

In another terrific showcase of drama, the Wings beat the Penguins, 3-2, on Wednesday to win the Stanley Cup. They took this Cup with cool force, in their classically composed way, rolling into an enemy arena and quelling the noise. And in case anyone still wondered, yes it's true: What's old is new again, and the hockey world is back to Red again.

They had to shake off smothering pressure and pesky Penguins to do it, but the Wings did it with great defense and stellar goaltending by Osgood, with the relentlessness of stars Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom, with pieces and poise from all areas.

They did it with a clinching third-period goal by Zetterberg, whose shot dribbled between the legs of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The puck just sat there, for a second, two seconds, forever it seemed, until Fleury fell on it and knocked it in, and knocked the Penguins out.

From there, it all came spilling out, all the pent-up emotion and ramped-up talent, all the ingredients that made the Wings the best in hockey, and one of the most complete teams we've seen. As the game ended, that crushing three-overtime loss in Game 5 became just another obstacle hurdled, another piece of history.

"This is much more gratifying," said owner Mike Ilitch, comparing it to previous titles. "I'm not saying the (NHL salary cap) is because of us, but everybody wanted a fair shot. People expected us to go down."

The quiet stars

And now they know: History always reprises itself, and so do the Wings. They shook awake old glory, winning their fourth Cup in 11 years, their first in six years -- Hockeytown reborn, or revisited.

There were the new stars, similar to the previous stars, aligning themselves as they have throughout this dominating season. One by one, they hoisted the Stanley Cup, and with it, they raised the banner of a new era, the first championship without Steve Yzerman as captain or Scotty Bowman as coach.

There was another humble, superb leader in Nicklas Lidstrom, raising the Cup for the fourth time, his first as captain. He also becomes the first European captain to win the Cup.

"I watched Steve Yzerman hoist it three times, and I'm very proud of being the first European," Lidstrom said. "So much history with this team, the great tradition, I'm just so very proud."

Lidstrom lifted the Cup first, then handed it to the grizzled veteran, Dallas Drake, who had never won it, but symbolized the Wings' mix of young and old, stars and role players.

There, skating with the Cup, was another quiet superstar duo in Zetterberg and Datsyuk, who teamed up beautifully. Zetterberg won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, setting a franchise record for points in one postseason, eclipsing the mark shared by Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov.

"I've lost the words," a hoarse Zetterberg said. "Just an unbelievable feeling. When I saw Nick lifting the Cup, a great feeling went all through my body."

There was another stoic coach, Mike Babcock, who had kept it all in, never distracted, rarely emotional, until finally he achieved what he was brought here to do.

There was Osgood, 10 years removed from his 1998 championship with the Wings, withstanding the heat to lift the Cup again, and lifting so many outdated labels with it. He was excellent in these playoffs, stepping in for Dominik Hasek during a dangerous first round and calmly restoring order.

"I think I got a bigger heart than people realize," Osgood said. "That's why I'm here, because I don't give up."

Once they started skating and firing, shaking off nerves and that devastating loss, the Wings knew exactly where they were headed, straight to the net, straight to the lead, straight to the podium and their favorite trophy. They took a slight detour around Fleury and Sidney Crosby, worthy opponents. But on the final night, the Wings proved themselves, one more time, to be unstoppable.

On opposition ice

They encountered trouble occasionally, especially in the first round, when the Predators tied the series 2-2 and ousted Hasek. From there, they were virtually unstoppable, finishing off the Predators, sweeping the Avalanche, outlasting the Stars in six games, then wearing down the young Penguins in six.

The Wings closed every series on the opposition's ice, and if that isn't the perfect example of experience and guts and resolve, nothing is. The Wings were coming off, arguably, the toughest loss in franchise history, the triple-overtime crusher that put the champagne back on ice and the Cup back in the box.

Could they get back up? Silly question. Of course they could.

In the end, the Wings were the far-superior team, they just had to show it again, and they showed it quickly. Barely five minutes into the game, Brian Rafalski took a pass from Zetterberg, who was falling to the ice, and whistled a shot over Fleury's left shoulder for a 1-0 lead, which the Wings never relinquished.

Poise? They needed all of it, fighting off penalties, fighting off one last Pittsburgh flurry, when Crosby's final shot skittered toward Osgood, but not past him.

What exactly did we see during this relentless march to the Cup, during a regular season when the Wings were the NHL's best? Turns out, these Wings are every bit as good as promised, and maybe better than ever. They certainly belong in the discussion with the 1997, '98 and 2002 champions.

A European captain

This is a team as diverse and complex as the city it represents, with players from all countries and all statuses and all ages, with stars and role players. Much is made of the Wings' foreign influence, of the Swedes and Czechs and Russians and Canadians, with the occasional Fin thrown in.

Lidstrom is firmly entrenched as one of the greatest players in history, while obliterating the notion European players don't crave the Cup as much. What utter nonsense that turned out to be. From foreign roots, the Wings brought familiar traits -- hard work, selflessness and humility. Has a team this good ever been so unassuming? Have superstars this good -- Lidstrom, Zetterberg and Datsyuk -- ever been so mild-mannered and maniacally competitive at the same time?

This was the night when the new faces of the Wings were fully revealed, when Babcock did what Bowman once did, when Lidstrom did what Yzerman once did.

This was the night when a new era was stamped with authenticity, when dominance was celebrated all over again. Eras are now bridged, and by doing so, the franchise proved it can win under any circumstances and any rules, with a salary cap or without.

Remember, the 2002 star-studded championship team was supposed to be the end of this craziness. The NHL went through a lockout to rein in spending, and big-money teams like the Wings were supposed to be doomed. The $80 million payroll was sliced in half, and the smartest front office in hockey -- from Ilitch to Jimmy Devellano to Ken Holland to Jim Nill to Bowman -- went to work.

Datsyuk and Zetterberg tied it all together but it begins with Lidstrom, who at 38, shows no signs of slowing down. In many ways, he's like the team itself, replacing ridiculous labels -- too old, too soft -- with poise and skill.

And speaking of dumb labels, all those knocks that the Wings couldn't handle the toughest games? Never to be heard again.

The Wings won the toughest games imaginable, deep into the spring, deep into the nights. As the pressure kept growing, they kept rebounding, and it's pretty simple with this remarkable team. There seldom are fiery speeches, or singularly super-human efforts. It's a collective thing, as it always has been, as it is again.

History reprised, glory restored. Oh, yes, hockey is back to red again, and Stanley is headed to an old familiar home.

You can reach Bob Wojnowski at bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com.

The Wings embrace in the seconds after winning the Stanley Cup. (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)
Dan Cleary enjoys the moment. (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)
Ryan Malone tries to slide the puck back to goalie Marc-Andre Fleury but ... (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)
Dallas Drake takes a celebratory swig of champagne from the Stanley Cup as ... (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)
Diane Bullock, right, of Redford parties with the crowd at The Joe ... (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)