May 28, 2009 at 3:42 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Wings pull out OT thriller to earn return Finals trip against Penguins

Darren Helm, left, and Tomas Holmstrom celebrate Helm's overtime winner Wednesday. The Finals begin on Saturday. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)

Detroit

You get there any way you can, with whoever's available, with whatever body parts are still working. The Red Wings are back in the Stanley Cup Finals, in search of back-to-back championships, and oh boy, they took the rough, rollicking route there.

It gets harder with every step, and one giant step remains. But the Wings weren't going to be denied Wednesday night, despite staggering injuries and a still-pesky Chicago opponent and goofy bounces and huge saves.

How'd they do it, defying the odds that say defending champs don't return? By using practically every body and every trick, and saving the last one for the sweaty tension of overtime. Unheralded Darren Helm, all of 22, sat at the lip of the crease and tapped in the winner to beat the Blackhawks 2-1 and send the Joe Louis Arena crowd into familiar delirium.

The Wings captured the Western Conference Finals in five games and now face a familiar foe, a rematch with the starry Pittsburgh Penguins, and it starts quickly -- the first two games are Saturday night and Sunday night here. Yikes. No rest for the weary Wings.

Last spring, the Wings wiped out the esteemed Sidney Crosby and Crew in six games. If the mounting injuries and draining energy are clues, this will be even tougher.

"What happened last year isn't going to have any bearing on this year," said goalie Chris Osgood, tremendously reliable yet again. "This year, a lot of different guys are stepping up for both teams. It'll be fun and a challenge for us because they're playing at such a high level. We'll be ready for sure."

How'd the Wings do it? They were missing Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom, Kris Draper and Jonathan Ericsson, all with injuries or sudden illnesses. They leaned on every spectrum, from 47-year-old Chris Chelios to young, hyper Helm.

Someone had to step up because the Blackhawks weren't going away. Osgood did his share with another batch of stirring saves, but when Chicago's Patrick Kane tied it in the third period, the crowd gasped, and for a while, the Wings did too.

Flying on fumes, it was so strange and yet so natural the energetic Helm would win it. How do you figure this amazing story? The kid didn't score a goal in limited regular-season action, but has three in the playoffs.

"I pinch myself almost every game," Helm said, still pinching and pitching in.

How'd they do it and how will they fare in the Finals rematch? Experience made a difference but the Wings also are paying the price. They'll have to keep doing it against the determined Penguins, who surely will have the added incentive of facing their former teammate, Marian Hossa.

Ah, how stories twist. Hossa signed a one-year deal with Detroit to win a Cup, and brought all that hunger with him. And now, you can bet the Penguins will be using that themselves.

Here they come, with all that offense and those two dynamic superstars. The Penguins are the highest-scoring team in the playoffs and Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lead everybody in goals, itching to ascend that final step. I'm sure they recall with disdain the stifling Detroit defense last year, when Malkin was completely shut down.

After that, the Wings swiped a chunk of the Penguins' offense when they signed Hossa, who turned down bigger offers from others, including a long-term deal with the Penguins. He'll get to see both sides of the NHL's first Finals rematch since the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers traded titles in 1983 and '84.

"It's a little ironic and a unique situation," said Hossa, who was dangerous all night. "I have to make this not too big a distraction."

To get back, the Wings had to do it the hard way, or the hurt way. It's sort of their style, actually. There's always another bump on the way to the shiny silver prize.

On this night, there were a bunch of bumps, big-named bumps, including a bizarre new one. Ericsson, who has grown steadily in these playoffs, experienced abdominal pain Wednesday, went to the hospital, and had his appendix removed. So the roll call was gruesome. Datsyuk? Still out, apparently with a foot injury. Lidstrom? Still out with an undisclosed injury. Draper? Still out with a groin injury. Gordie Howe? Still legendary, but at 81, a tad too old to play.

The Wings came out as if they couldn't wait to get where they needed to go, plunking tons of shots off Blackhawks goalie Cristobal Huet, who was superb. When Huet lifted his leg and made a miraculous save on Johan Franzen with 20 seconds left in regulation, you had to wonder when it would end.

The depleted Wings needed help, and they got it from all areas.

Late in the second period, there was Helm, chasing the puck all over the ice, racing into Chicago's end to kill a penalty. And when he did, almost single-handedly, the crowd roared.

It was the highlight of the game, until Helm unbelievably delivered a bigger one. And now it's sitting right there again, the biggest goal. The Wings got back to the Finals because they know what it takes, and have plenty of players who know when to deliver.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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