The 96-97 Detroit Red Wings were not yet viewed as the model franchise. They were not viewed as the perennial success story of the NHL. They were actually viewed as one of the bigger choke artists in the league at the time. After a couple uneventful playoff exits to begin the 90’s, the heartbreaks started to pile up.
- The devastating Game 7 OT loss in round 1 to the Leafs in ‘93.
- The unthinkable upset in round one of the playoffs to the 8th seeded Sharks in ‘94.
- The sweep at the hands of the New Jersey Devils in the ‘95 Cup Finals.
- The 6 game defeat in the heated 96’ Conference finals to the Avalanche despite Detroit setting the all time wins record that very regular season.
- All those defeats despite being near the top of the NHL each season.
- Oh, and going into the 1996-97 regular season, the Red Wings had not won a Stanley Cup in 41 years.
To say it was rough being a Wings fan at that time, would be an understatement.
Detroit was a solid team in the regular season but unspectacular, finishing 3rd in the Western Conference, 13 points behind conference leaders Colorado. They were a team with respect but no spotlight. They went into the 1997 playoffs in an unfamiliar position, they were the underdogs, a role they had not taken in half a decade. Perhaps the lack of expectation aided in the magic to come.
The 96-97 Red Wings were led offensively by exactly the crew you would expect.
Round 1. The Wings met up with a familiar foe in round 1, the St. Louis Blues. The memory of Steve Yzerman’s booming slapshot that ended St. Louis’ 96’ playoffs still fresh in everyone’s mind. It was a rematch that St. Louis likely wanted, badly.
With the aid of an impassioned speech from the Captain following a game 4 loss, the Wings rallied behind Stevie and took the final two games, clinching the series in 6.
Round 2. The second round featured a new opponent for Detroit, for the first time in franchise history they’d face the Anaheim (still) Mighty Ducks in the playoffs. Despite being led by superstars Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne Detroit took care of the Ducks in a 4 game sweep.
However, counting overtime periods it took nearly six games worth of time to complete. Martin Lapointe, Slava Kozlov and Brendan Shanahan providing the overtime heroics in games 1, 2 & 4.
Round 3. The series the entire hockey world dreamed of. The Detroit Red Wings vs the Colorado Avalanche.
In less than a year’s time this had become the most heated rivalry in professional hockey, arguably professional sports. One year removed from Claude Lemieux’s vicious hit from behind on Kris Draper.
Only a couple months removed from one of the most memorable regular season games in NHL history where Darren McCarty jumped Claude Lemieux and then a line brawl erupted which eventually ended up with Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon squaring off at center ice (with Darren McCarty scoring the OT winner). After a grueling 6 game series the Detroit Red Wings avenged Kris Draper and powered past the Avs in 6 games.
It should be noted that the finals were technically the Red Wings vs the Philadelphia Flyers, but what it actually felt like was the Red Wings vs the Legion of the Doom. Standing in the Wings way was one of the best and most notorious lines of the ‘90’s: Eric Lindros, John Leclair and Mikael Renberg, aka the Legion of Doom.
Entering this series the Flyers were viewed as the favorites, not only because of their better regular season, not only because of their vaunted top line but because this was the Red Wings, the ‘San Jose Sharks’ of the early ‘90’s, the team that was simply going to find a way to lose.
That was the general sentiment anyway. After the Red Wings absolutely dominated the first two games on the road the sentiment quickly changed to “will Philly win a game?” No. No they would not. Detroit continued to take it to the Flyers and secured the sweep. The Cup winning goal putting an emphatic statement on the series. Que Darren McCarty…….
This very well been the Detroit Red Wings single most memorable season, if not at least the most magical.
Anybody old enough to remember knows the feeling they had when Steve Yzerman finally raised the Stanley Cup. I was nearly 10 years old at the time, and even I knew what a monumental moment this was, I could not fathom the amount of time that had passed since the Wings last did this, even then I knew this was a season I would never forget.