How quickly this team’s world was turned upside down. Even now I think young hockey fans are hazy on this particular memory. On paper you only see that this is the last team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in the last twenty-years. Yet before the team even had a chance to come down from their 1997 win, a horrific car crash would change everything.
On June 13th, 1997, Vladimir Konstantinov, Viacheslav Fetisov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov hired a limousine to take them home from a private party. Just six days after defeating the Philadelphia Flyers for the Stanley Cup, the celebrations came to an abrupt halt. Vladimir Konstantinov would wake up from a coma several weeks later with severe head trauma and paralysis. To this day, he still struggles with walking and speech. Thankfully, Fetisov only suffered minor injures but Mnatsakanov was in even worse shape than Konstantinov. The celebration was over and the season began a few months later with a much more sombre tone.
The Wings lined up on opening night sporting “Believe” patches on their shoulders in memory of the teammate and staff member who weren’t there with them. This was a season where the puck glowed when you watched it on TV, two games were played in Japan, only one player broke 100 points (Jagr) and Hasek became the only player post-1955 to register 13 shutouts in a season. Most notably, historians will see this as the development of the Dead Puck era.
Konstantinov left a huge gap on defence but that wasn’t the only roster issue. Mike Vernon, the reigning Conn Smythe winner was traded to the Sharks and to make matters worse, Detroit was in an ugly holdout with one of their greats, Sergei Fedorov. The dispute was so bad it took the Wings matching a Carolina Hurricanes offer sheet in FEBRUARY to get him back on the ice. Laced with bonuses so as to attempt to detract the Wings from matching the offer sheet, including a $12M bonus for a conference finals appearance, Fedorov ended up setting an NHL record earning $28M for just 43 games played when the Wings eventually gave in. But it wasn’t doom and gloom for long.
The Red Wings still had Scotty Bowman behind the bench. Steve Yzerman had finally shaken the critique that maybe he just wasn’t a winner. Shanahan was amidst a historic career he’d later disgrace by taking a job with the Maple Leafs and Lidström was a force unlike any other in the NHL.
The Red Wings finished the season with a 3rd best 103 points behind only the Devils and the Stars. In a competitive Western Conference, the Wings more than held their own. While the playoffs lacked a Wings/Avalanche heavyweight tilt, the regular season had its moments. Only a year off eating Mike Vernon’s haymakers during the infamous Turtling brawl of ’97, Patrick Roy (there was a how does he still have a coaching job joke here and then…) attempted to exact revenge on Chris Osgood. Despite a couple decent rights, Roy still managed to eat some fists and get taken down by the much smaller Osgood:
They finished strong, tightened up the backend at the deadline and began the always difficult trudge through the Western Conference Playoffs.
ROUND 1 – THE PHOENIX COYOTES
This was an underrated Coyotes team. Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk, Rick Tocchet and Nikolai Khabibulin were all forces in the series, especially in a 7-3 pounding in game two that saw Detroit’s fate in this playoffs looking grim. Watch any highlights from this series and try to track how many times there’s a shorthanded breakaway for Phoenix. When RJ and Tkachuk kill your penalties, that PP better be sharp. This series really tested a young Chris Osgood. Most notably, Osgood let in a 60-footer from Roenick in game 3 where the Wings blew a two-goal lead in the third. Many questioned his resolve and whether or not the Coyotes had broke him. Osgood though responded in a big way in game four, eventually steering the ship back on course and take out the Coyotes in six games. The speed and skill of the Red Wings returned and they took over the series from there.
ROUND 2 – THE ST. LOUIS BLUES
Another awful start for the Wings. They split the first two at home and headed to St. Louis again needing a bounce back game on the road. They thought they might have had it until Osgood’s struggles resurfaced, letting in a goal from centre ice with less than a minute remaining to send it to OT. Shanahan’s double OT winner seemingly saved the Wings season. The Wings would take the high-scoring series in six games, Yzerman finished with 9 points in those six games and the Wings managed to silence the likes of Pronger, MacInnis, Turgeon, Hull and Fuhr.
CONFERENCE FINALS – THE DALLAS STARS
It was time for Detroit’s real test. The NHL-leading Dallas Stars were an absolute force in 1998. Modano in his prime, Belfour stopping everything, and a supporting cast feating Carbonneau, Langenbrunner, Zubov and Keane. This was the first time a team took it to Detroit physically but in game three Detroit responded. MacCarty, Maltby and Lapointe kept up physically as Detroit’s stars, specifically Lidström (6 points in 6 games) started burying pucks. Fans may remember Detroit almost blowing a 4 goal lead only to have Lapointe bury one late to seal the win with Belfour unable to get back to the net quick enough after putting on a performance for the refs looking for a penalty call:
Although Balfour’s antics didn’t quite work out, it went on to inspire such famous plays as:
— Tim and Sid (@timandsid) February 17, 2016
By the time game four came around the team was heating up and to push them over the edge was an unexpected appearance from Konstantinov high up in the press box. After a standing ovation from both teams and a packed house, Detroit powered on. With a chance to take the series in 5 games, Osgood again lets in ANOTHER goal from centre ice, costing the team the game in overtime. But in game six he’d respond yet again, posting a shutout and allowing the Wings to advance to the Stanley Cup finals two years in a row.
STANLEY CUP FINALS – THE WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Olaf Kölzig was the hottest goalie of the playoffs. He had just defeated the Dominator and the Sabres and he was taking this Capitals team to their first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in franchise history. Adam Oates, Peter Bondra, Richard Zednik, a young Sergei Gonchar, this team was no push over and had battled hard through the eastern conference to get to where they were. Game one saw both teams a little bit reserved, but it was game two that really set the tone and shifted the momentum. The Caps took a demanding 4-2 lead in the third and things looked bleak for the Wings. But finally, with a solid rally, it seems like they finally had a bounce go in their favour this playoffs:
This empty net miss kept the Wings alive and set them up to take the game 5-4 in OT and solidify a solid 2-0 lead in the series. After an incredibly underwhelming playoffs in which Draper would only score a single goal, I’m sure everyone is happy that it came when it finally did:
Game three saw another close contest, with a late goal by Fedorov to pull out the close 2-1 win. It was another solid performance by Osgood who managed to only give up one goal in three of the four games of the series.
Game four saw the season-long tribute finally come to fruition. Believe is what they wore on their shoulders and with Konstantinov himself in the stands, the Detroit Red Wings put away game four by a score of 4-1 to capture back-to-back Stanley Cups. Not only did they go two years straight, but both finals only needed four games, an incredible accomplishment for any team.
This win was followed by arguably one of the most memorable celebrations in Stanley Cup history. After accepting the Cup, Conn Smyth winner Steve Yzerman handed the trophy off to none other than Vlady Konstantinov:
A moment that will forever be remembered in hockey history with one of the greatest teams the Red Wings would ever ice.
This was an era like we’d never see again, a crossroads of the old game meeting the new. It was a playoffs that would secure the legacy of many of the Wings greatest talents and solidify their place as a perennial contender for the next ten years. The win is incredible, but the journey is what really made the 1998 Stanley Cup Playoffs such an important mark in this franchises history.