May 7, 2013 at 11:47 pm

John Niyo

Red Wings' Damien Brunner gets last laugh with redemptive winner

Red Wings discuss Game 4 OT win over Ducks
Red Wings discuss Game 4 OT win over Ducks: Young players Brunner, Nyquist, Smith come through to tie playoff series at 2-2.

Detroit — Damien Brunner's redemption song began as more of a catcall. Or a punchline.

But it ended Monday night with the beautiful sound of a horn — and the happy screams of his teammates — as the Red Wings' rookie forward scored the overtime winner to beat Anaheim, 3-2, in Game 4 of the Western Conference quarterfinals at Joe Louis Arena.

For the Wings, it was the biggest goal of the season, knotting this best-of-seven series at two games apiece, avoiding an elimination date Wednesday in Anaheim and ensuring there'll be at least one more playoff game in Detroit this spring.

And for Brunner, it was easily the biggest goal of his hockey career, which began in his native Switzerland, where he played professionally for six seasons before making the jump to the NHL, signing with the Wings as a free agent last summer.

"I had a series winner in Switzerland once — in overtime — to go to the semifinals," Brunner laughed, "but I would say this one tops it."

More important, it trumps the awful feeling he'd experienced barely 48 hours earlier, when his open-ice gaffe proved to be the back-breaker Saturday night in the Wings' 4-0 loss in Game 3. Brunner's unforced, defensive-zone turnover led directly to Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf scoring the second goal of the night.

"I blamed myself so much," said Brunner, who also had a three-point outing in the Game 2 overtime win in Anaheim. "I had a terrible night, I couldn't sleep. … Obviously, it was my fault that we didn't have a chance to come back in the game."

Joke's on Brunner

But the next morning, when he showed up at the rink, the blame game took a decidedly sarcastic turn, starting with defenseman Brendan Smith.

"Smitty told me I made the highlights in the morning," Brunner said, smiling as he rattled off a list of oh-so-clever comedians. "Pav (Pavel Datsyuk) made some pretty good jokes, too. And my friends in Switzerland told me I should call the league and make sure I got that assist."

And with friends like that … right?

But really, laughter was the best medicine for Brunner, who started fast after making his NHL debut back in January but slowed considerably as the season wore on — 10 goals in his first two months, and two in the last two.

"You've got to get it out in the open so you can get past it," Smith said. "The biggest thing is to get past it. And Damien's a great guy like that — he's all for laughs."

Said Brunner: "You know, it was the best thing. The guys did a great job of keeping my head up, tapping my shoulder, and it felt really good. It made me feel needed for the next game."

'Flat-out scores'

Everyone is needed in the playoffs, of course. But particularly the goal scorers on this offensively-challenged team, one that for a long while Monday looked as if it might make history, joining the 1945 Red Wings as the only teams in franchise history to post consecutive shutout losses at home in the playoffs.

And after Smith got his Ducks in a row to break the ice early in the third period, and after Datsyuk dented the water bottle behind Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller to tie it with 6:23 left in regulation, there was an urgent need for a playoff hero.

So why not Gus and The Goat and the rest of the kids?

Jakub Kindl's outlet pass found rookie Joakim Andersson, who found another rookie, Gustav Nyquist, who used his speed to split a pair of defenders and then race to put a shot on net. And as the Ducks got caught up in the commotion, it left Brunner alone with a golden opportunity in front of a sprawling Hiller.

"It came out perfectly and I just had to lift it over his pad there," said Brunner, who'd been all but benched earlier in the night, with one shot on goal all game prior to the winner — and only two shifts in the entire third period.

"It was not my best game tonight again," he acknowledged.

And his coach concurred, having given him just 11:16 of ice time Monday -- the fewest minutes of any player on either team.

"We used him more sparingly tonight just because other guys were playing heavier on the puck," Mike Babcock said. "But he's a guy that just flat-out scores, knows how to score. He's gonna be a good Red Wing in time. He's gonna learn how to play right, he's gonna learn how to play heavy. You don't have to be heavy to play heavy. But he'll figure all that stuff out."

Until he does, he'll have to keep figuring out ways to convince his coach he belongs on the ice.

"When you're not getting the ice time you want," Babcock added, "then you find a way to do something about it if you're a competitor, and he's that."

He certainly did something about it at the end of this game. And when asked if that meant he'd sleep better Monday night — or what was left of it, anyway — Brunner couldn't help but laugh.

"I guess," he said, and you could tell he was already bracing for his teammates' jokes in the morning.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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Damien Brunner celebrates the overtime winning goal. / Daniel Mears / The Detroit News
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