The Detroit Red Wings were a frustrated organization in 1997. They’d played the best hockey in the Western Conference for three straight years. For their troubles, they’d been upset in the first round by San Jose in 1994, lost the Cup Finals to New Jersey in 1995 been ousted by Colorado in a conference finals showdown that left bad blood brewing carrying all the way into the new season, as the 1997 Detroit Red Wings looked to get the monkey off their back.
Detroit was coached by legendary Scotty Bowman, and the top scorer was Brendan Shanahan, with 46 goals and 41 assists. While Shanahan had the production, the best reputation belonged to center Sergei Federov, whose 30 goals/33 assists were a little low, but his ability to take over a game was undisputed.
Steve Yzerman was one of the top passers in the game with 63 assists, Igor Larionov was a productive passer and defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom was at the beginning a career that will likely end in the Hall of Fame.
The issue was whether Detroit had championship-quality goaltending. While Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood were effective, they didn’t dominate the way Colorado’s Patrick Roy or New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur—the goalies who’d beaten the Red Wings and won the last two Cups—could.
After a slow start, losing four of six, Detroit responded with a 5-0-2 stretch and another three-game win streak moved them to 19-11-6 shortly after Christmas. The final game in this stretch was a magnificent display by Federov who scored five goals, the last in overtime, to beat the Washington Capitals 5-4. Towards the end of February, another three-game win streak nudged them to 31-19-12.
The Red Wings were playing solid, consistent hockey, but they were a step behind Colorado and Dallas in the Western Conference and this didn’t have the feel of a Cup winner.
On March 26, Detroit faced Colorado. It wasn’t the first time the teams had faced since last year’s playoff brawl and the previous games passed without incident. This time the bad blood the Red Wings felt over Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux’s hit on Kris Draper that fractured the latter’s jaw in last year’s playoffs, and left Draper out for much of the 1997 season, boiled over.
A full-scale brawl ensured, and the Red Wings ultimately won a 6-5 game in overtime. If you’re looking for a turning point prior to the playoffs, when a good team became a championship one, this would be it. Perhaps that’s reading too much into things, but Detroit had clearly sent a message to the defending champs and the team that would be the conference’s #1 seed. The Red Wings were slotted at #3 and set to play the St. Louis Blues.
On April 16, St. Louis came to Joe Louis Arena to start the NHL playoffs and for Detroit fans it had to feel like a recurring nightmare. Brett Hull was one of the game’s top offensive players and the Blues were coached by Mike Keenan, who’d led the New York Rangers to glory in 1994 and they started the series off with a 2-0 win. Was this going to be another year where Detroit lost to a team with a hot goalie?
Fortunately, Grant Fuhr wasn’t in Roy or Brodeur’s class, and while offense was hard to come by, Detroit battled their way to 2-1 and 3-2 wins the next two games. Hull stepped up in Game 4 at St. Louis with three assists, while Geoff Courtnall scored twice in a 4-0 Blues win that knotted the series. A complete team effort characterized Game 5, as five different players scored and the Red Wings won 5-2. Then in Game 6, the Detroit defense clamped down and a 3-1 win sent them into the second round.
The Anaheim Mighty Ducks were the opponent (for the record, the official name at this time was “The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, but I’m just going to call then Anaheim in this article). Detroit had gotten a break when Dallas was beaten by Edmonton and it gave the Wings home-ice advantage for this series.
Anaheim had a pair of quality scorers in Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya, but the Red Wing defense and goaltending did a number on both in the opener, getting a 2-1 win in overtime. More overtime awaited in Game 2 and again Detroit got the win, 3-2.
When the series reverted west, the offensive players came out, with Federov getting a goal and two assists while Vychaslev Kozlov scored twice and the Wings took complete command of the series with a 5-3 win. Vernon stood tall in goal for Game 4, saving 35 of the 37 shots. But the game was won at the other end of the ice, where the Red Wings positively assaulted Anaheim goaltender Mikhail Shtalenkov with 73 shots. Amazingly, Shtalenkov kept his team in the game and saved 70 of them. But it wasn’t enough to prevent Detroit from getting the 3-2 win that clinched the series.
Showdown time was ahead and it was time for the rematch the NHL world wanted to see—at least the fans, if not the officials—and that was Detroit-Colorado in the Western Conference Finals.
Revenge is a great motivator, but dominant goaltending trumps anything else in sports. Once again, Detroit fans had reasons to think their recurring nightmare wouldn’t end, as their team went to the Rocky Mountains and came home a 2-1 loser after Roy saved 34 shots. But Game 2 saw a reversal of fortune. The defense shut down Colorado, allowing just 17 shots, while Federov and Yzerman each had a goal and an assist. The 4-2 Red Wings win evened the series as the teams went to the Rustbelt.
The duo of Federov and Kozlov delivered Game 3, as the former fed the latter for both goals and Detroit won 2-1. At the time it was just as notable that this was the game where tempers boiled over and full-scale brawling again went down. Detroit handled it better than Colorado, not only winning Game 3, but unleashing a devastating attack on Roy in Game 4. Larinov and unknown Kirk Maltby each scored two goals and the Wings rolled to a 6-0 win.
Once the series was back in Denver for Game 5, Colorado quickly turned the tables, getting two goals apiece from Lemieux and Joe Sakic in a 6-0 win of their own.
It was Memorial Day in Detroit as the teams arrived at Joe Louis Arena for Game 6. While Detroit was getting solid goaltending play, Roy’s influence still loomed over this series. One way to overcome a goalie advantage is just to completely outplay your opponent between the goals. Once again, the Red Wings’ defenseman were in shutdown mode and the Avalanche could generate only 16 shots. Detroit attacked Roy 41 times. Raw numbers swung it, and a 3-1 win was sweet vindication for Bowman and the Wings as they headed for the Finals.
Beating Colorado was cathartic, but this group had still reached the Finals before. Only hoisting the Cup could lift the burden the city of Detroit felt. The opponent was the Philadelphia Flyers. The #3 seed in the East, the Flyers had only finished one point behind top seed New Jersey and was only seeded #2 because they were a non-division winner (each conference was split into two divisions at this time).
Philadelphia had home-ice advantage and they had two signature players in Eric Lindros and Jon LeClair. Lindros was the more hyped star, while LeClair just filled the net with pucks, scoring 50 goals. What Philadelphia did not have was elite goaltending. Ron Hextall wasn’t bad, but there was no reason to think he would overmatch Vernon.
On the final day of May, Detroit got the Finals off to a good start with a 4-2 win, and then really ratcheted up the excitement level when they took Game 2 by the same score behind two goals from Shanahan. The series went back to Motown and Federov took over Game 3, scoring twice, dishing two assists and leading the way to a 6-1 rout.
The elusive Cup was in their grasp and in front of a raucous crowd on a Saturday night, the Red Wings got a 2-1 win that brought it home. One of hockey’s best franchises was on top again.
Detroit would win a second straight championship the following year, again coming out of the 3-spot in the West and again sweeping the Finals (this time against Washington). They won the title in 2002 and 2008. Detroit’s a great hockey town and the 1997 Detroit Red Wings were the one who finally got the monkey off the back.