FOR THOSE harping annually and incessantly about the Flyers' need for an elite goalie, Chris Osgood is your nightmare.

He is a game away from having his name carved on the Stanley Cup for the fourth time, which as we all know, is twice more than Bernie Parent's name is carved on it.

I know, I know. I should go to H-E-double-goalie-sticks for writing such a thing, even if it's true. Because we all know that Bernie Parent is the greatest goalie on this and all other planets, bar none. We all know that as great as Bobby Clarke was, as dynamic as Rick MacLeish was, as tough as Dave Schultz was, none would have his name etched on that Cup if Bernie Parent were human.

And we all know the history since then. Pete Peeters. The tragic accident that took Pelle Lindbergh's life. The near-miss against the Oilers when Ron Hextall won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1987. The five-hole that was the late '90s. Brian Boucher. Robert Esche. Roman Cechmanek.

We all know the wailing that's been done since, too. If we only had a top-echelon goalie like that other team that just pushed past ours, there would be more Cups than the two Bernie won. If we only had an Olie the goalie, a Dominik Hasek, a Marty Brodeur. How many Cups would we have won?

So how come no one ever covets Osgood? Saturday's 5-0, Game 5 gem over the Penguins was his 15th playoff shutout. He owns a 15-6 record this postseason, after finishing 14-4 last postseason - in relief of Hasek. His goals-against average over the last two playoff runs is under 2.00.

And yet, "It seems he never seems to get the respect he deserves from others," Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit's captain, was saying the other day.

Lidstrom and his mates are at least partly to blame. When Osgood has a game like Saturday's, it is all about the Red Wings and their talented team. When he plays poorly, he is quickly dismissed as a second-tier guy. Even Martin Biron, on his way out of Philadelphia despite some unbelievable individual postseason performances over the last two seasons, has received more love.

Not anymore, though. Someone had to be blamed for the Flyers' latest listless limp in and out of the playoffs. But who? The first-year captain who shrugged off their sluggish play down the stretch? Uh-uh. His high-scoring mate who developed a rubber stick blade at the most inopportune time? He was hurt. The head coach who struggled to convince his team of the worth of his defense-first system? The often-skittish defense of that system? The general manager who mismanaged the salary cap into some dubious trade-deadline maneuvers?

Nope. It's the goalie.

It's always the goalie.

Maybe he was just too damn nice.

Ray Emery is on his way in. So that shouldn't be a problem anymore.

Here's the irony: Back in February, when talk of the Flyers acquiring a playoff-run goalie was at its crescendo - one local guy had a new name every week - the Wings sent Osgood home for 10 days to clear his head, so bad was the first half of his season. You might have been able to get him for say, a Scottie Upshall, maybe even less. But despite the Stanley Cups, the playoff record from the year before, Osgood was not considered much of an upgrade.

He stopped 22 shots Saturday - certainly not the busiest of nights. But two early saves, when the Penguins were swarming, helped flip the game's momentum. And Osgood's heads-up pass resulted in Detroit's second goal, which changed the game for good.

Last year, Osgood blanked Pittsburgh in the first two games of the finals. In the Wings' sweep of Washington in the 1998 Stanley Cup finals, he limited the Capitals to one goal in three of the four games.

"You really can't ask more of a goalie than what he's done," Lidstrom said.

Yet we will continue to. Year after year. Biron will play somewhere else next year, Emery will be shipped in from Russia. Osgood probably will be back in Detroit. Each will get hot, each will get cold and when April runs around, one team will play really well in front of its goaltender and some goaltender will in turn repeatedly bail out his team. Not every game, not every tough shot, but enough times to etch his name on that coveted chalice.

One more win and Osgood's name goes on it for the fourth time, third time as a starter.

That doesn't mean he is Bernie Parent.

It just means you don't have to be to win a Stanley Cup. *

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