After winning consecutive Stanley Cups in 1997 and 1998, the Detroit Red Wings had failed to advance past the second round of the playoffs for three straight years. The 2002 Detroit Red Wings went for it all, adding notable veterans to a lineup that was already experienced to the core.
Detroit picked up Brett Hull, a former league MVP, who had been a big contributor to a 1999 Stanley Cup run for the Dallas Stars. The Red Wings added longtime Los Angeles Kings’ great Luc Robatille, and the Red Wings finished their offseason moves by acquiring Dominic Hasek, merely the best goaltender of his time in the NHL.
These players were added to a core that included Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Federov, Steve Yzerman, Igor Larionov, Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios. All of the aforementioned players were ages 31 to 41.
Detroit produced the best record in the NHL, but the playoffs got off a rocky start. The 8th-seeded Vancouver Canucks hit Hasek with nine goals in the first two games and took a 2-0 series lead. The Red Wings immediately turned it around, as Hasek held the Canucks to three goals over the next three games, all won by Detroit. They finished it off with a 6-4 win in Game 6.
Hasek spun two shutouts in the second round against the St. Louis Blues and Detroit rolled to a series victory in five games. It set up a showdown with the Colorado Avalanche in the conference finals, a rematch of heated battles between the two teams in 1996 and 1997, each winning once. What’s more, the Avalanche were the defending Stanley Cup champions and they had one of the era’s great goaltenders themselves in Patrick Roy.
A heated battle is exactly what hockey fans got, with three of the first five games going to overtime. But Colorado won two of the OT games, and held a 3-2 series lead overall. Then Hasek took over. He turned back all 24 Colorado shots in Game 6, a 2-0 Red Wings win that brought the series back to Joe Louis Arena for a decisive Game 7.
Red Wings-Avalanche in Game 7 at this period of NHL history seemed destined for hockey lore. Instead, it turned into one long Detroit party. Tomas Holmstrom scored two goals. Robatille scored and handed out two assists. On perhaps the worst night of Roy’s professional career, Detroit unloaded for a 7-0 win and reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
Five teams in the Eastern Conference had stronger regular seasons than the Carolina Hurricanes. But it was the Hurricanes who got a strong wind behind them in the playoffs. They ousted the New Jersey Devils, who had been to consecutive Stanley Cup Finals, and whose goaltender Martin Brodeur would have been a worthy opponent for Hasek.
Carolina caught a break when the top-seeded Boston Bruins lost, and the Hurricanes instead beat the Montreal Canadiens in the second round. Carolina then upset the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had the second-best record in the East, to reach the Finals.
The result was that the real Stanley Cup battle for the 2002 Detroit Red Wings had already taken place, in their victory over Colorado. They went on to dispatch Carolina in five games. Lidstrom won the Conn Smythe Award as MVP of the entire postseason, and Detroit was back on top of the hockey world.