The joy Red Wings fans might be feeling – should be feeling – about their team advancing to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 24th straight season will never compare to the unmitigated frenzy that gripped Detroit 20 years ago this spring.
Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov formed the best one-two center-ice tandem in the world. Paul Coffey would win Norris Trophy as NHL’s best defenseman – and he probably wasn’t the best defenseman in his own team. Four of the Russian Five were here. So was a goaltender with Stanley Cup credentials in Mike Vernon, with a prodigy named Chris Osgood behind him.
Oh, and the best coach in NHL history, Scotty Bowman, was behind the Detroit bench.
When the Red Wings rolled to the best record in a season shortened to just 48 games because of a labor dispute, then took a 12-2 record into the Finals after steamrolling their first three playoff opponents, it felt like a foregone conclusion that a 40-year Stanley Cup drought was finally coming to an end. The Cup was finally coming home to the D. for the first time since 1955.
Except it didn’t.
Detroit’s first trip to the Cup finals for the first time since 1966 was a nightmare times four. But more about that in a moment.
No city in the NHL welcomed the end of bitter impasse between the owners and their locked-out players than Detroit. It lasted through the Christmas holidays and into January.
Finally, just as it seemed the NHL would follow Major League Baseball and cancel a season that year, the two sides reached a compromise. Interestingly, Wings owner Mike Ilitch was among a handful of hard-line owners willing to cancel the whole season unless the players agreed to a salary cap. He was outvoted by his fellow owners, and the sides agreed to an abbreviated schedule in which teams would play only conference opponents.
So on Jan. 20, 1995, the Wings opened with a 4-1 victory over Chicago at The Joe. With workmanlike precision, they vaulted to the top of the overall standings and stayed there, finishing with a 33-11-4 record and 70 points, giving them the President’s Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
The post-season started a little later than normal that year, but the Wings began to roll immediately with a 4-1 win over Dallas on May 7, the start of a series that would end in five games. And Detroit fans were rockin’.
Next up: A four-game sweep of San Jose, when the Wings scored six goals in every game and outscored the Sharks 24-6 in the series. A feeling of inevitability began to take hold, and people were already talking about the parade.
The Western Conference finals against the Chicago Blackhawks were something to behold. The Wings took a 3-0 series lead, but each game was decided by a single goal. The series-opener ended in overtime. Game 3 in Chicago went into the second overtime. The Hawks avoided a sweep with a 5-2 win in Game 4, pushing the series back to Detroit where the series finally ended with a 2-1 win in double-overtime.
This series provided some of the most intense, emotional moments in Detroit hockey history. It was almost a letdown that the Wings had to play yet another series.
Enter the New Jersey Devils and their stifling, boring, neutral-zone trapping system that overwhelmed Detroit.
Three games into the series, Bowman and all his stars found themselves down three games to none, and in one of the most stunning post-game news conferences I’ve ever witnessed he threw them all under the bus.
“We never were humiliated and embarrassed like we were tonight for two periods,” Bowman said following a 5-2 loss that gave the Devils a 3-0 series edge. “A lot of players in the league would give their eyeteeth to even get one shift in the Finals. It’s totally unacceptable as a player, as a coach.
“The entire group has to take the full responsibility. It was an embarrassment to the National Hockey League.”
Perhaps it was Bowman’s attempt to prod his team to find a way to avoid the complete and utter shame of a four-game sweep. It didn’t work. The Wings lost Game 4 by the same 5-2 score on June 24, and the disgrace was complete. And a summer that was technically just three days old was already ruined.
The point here? As these young Red Wings that have given us a wonderful season to date head into the post-season, take nothing for granted. Anything can happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and it usually does.
This is an absolutely wonderful time of year, even for the most casual hockey fan. We’ve been awfully spoiled here with 24 straight years of playoff hockey, but whether these enigmatic Wings win 16 playoff games or only a few, there will be moments to savor and remember.
Enjoy it while it lasts.