Road to Stanleytown: Steve Yzerman, Russian Five and Grind Line blast Blues in Game 5

Detroit Free Press
Gene Myers |  Special to Detroit Free Press

In the spring of 1997 — a quarter-century ago — the Detroit Red Wings embarked on their quest to end a 42-year Stanley Cup drought.

The Free Press has commemorated that historic quest with a new book: “Stanleytown 25 Years Later: The Inside Story of How the Stanley Cup Returned to the Motor City After 41 Frustrating Seasons.

Day 10: April 25, 1997

The backstory: Three nights after captain Steve Yzerman called upon himself and his biggest-name teammates to raise their games, the Red Wings took the ice at Joe Louis Arena with their season in the balance. Yes, it only was Game 5 in a deadlocked series against the Blues. Yes, even if the Wings lost, they still could advance by winning Game 6 at St. Louis and Game 7 at Detroit. In fact, they had done just that the previous season. But the 1995-96 Wings could score goals at will and had incredible confidence and momentum from a 62-victory season. The 1996-97 Wings had averaged only 1.8 goals a game for the last month and had a losing record over the last six weeks. Other than the recently christened Grind Line of Joe Kocur-Kris Draper-Kirk Maltby, the Wings’ lines were in disarray. Nicklas Lidstrom and Vladimir Konstantinov, the best defensive pairing in the league, owned a combined minus-6 rating. Who would answer Yzerman’s call to arms?

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Game 5: Yzerman was the first to answer his call. But far from the last. Blues goalie Grant Fuhr, despite his two shutouts and 1.26 goals-against average, looked like a nervous rookie instead of a future Hall of Famer. He was caught off guard on the Wings’ first two shots, but he made the saves. He wasn’t prepared for the third shot, either — a 95-foot Yzerman slap shot, one stride in from the red line. “Happens once a year,” Fuhr told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. After 3:22, the Wings owned a 1-0 lead. Coach Scotty Bowman didn’t change his personnel — forward Doug Brown remained in street clothes for the fifth straight game — but Bowman changed how he used nearly everybody. For the first time in the playoffs, the Russian Five played together for an entire game. Jason La Canfora wrote in the Free Press: “And play they did. The skating, the stickhandling, the speed and the grace all returned with each shift together.” “Everybody was excited before the game when Scotty told us we were going to play together,” Igor Larionov said. “I missed the Russian Five,” Slava Kozlov said, “since we didn’t play much in the regular season.” Bowman even tinkered with the Grind Line — rarely playing Kocur in favor of Darren McCarty. Despite being outshot, 11-3, in the first period, the Blues managed a 1-1 tie on an Al MacInnis power-play goal, after a controversial goaltender interference call on Martin Lapointe. Five minutes into second period, Larionov and Sergei Fedorov set up Kozlov for the go-ahead goal. After 29 shots in the series, a Russian finally had turned on the red light. Less than three minutes later, McCarty backhanded in the rebound from a Draper shot for his first goal. On another power play, the Blues closed within a goal again four minutes later. But 61 seconds after that Brendan Shanahan scored his second goal of the series. The last goal in a 5-2 Detroit victory came from Larry Murphy early in the final period.

FROM CAPTAIN TO BOSS: What 3 years in charge of Red Wings shows about Yzerman’s plan

Worth noting: Yzerman had called for the stars to come out — and they shined brightly once again. The Captain had a goal and an assist. Shanahan had a goal and two assists. Murphy had a goal and an assist. The Russians had a goal and two assists. Lidstrom was a plus-3. … Bowman, though, lauded different Wings for his three stars: “The key to the game, really, was the play of Draper, McCarty and (Kirk) Maltby. They played against all of St. Louis’ big lines. They scored a big goal to really get us going, the kind of goal we need, going to the net, picking up a rebound. I thought they did a tremendous job.” Draper said: “Poor Mac had to come down to play with Drapes and Malts tonight.” … Kocur, Tomas Sandstrom and Aaron Ward were used sparingly. … Center Pierre Turgeon (headaches) and forward Pavol Demitra (finger) played for the Blues but did little damage. Defenseman Igor Kravchuk (ribs) missed his third straight game. …. The Blues tried to intimidate the Russians during a scrum late in the second period. Fedorov proceeded to put Scott Pellerin on his back twice. “It felt great,” Fedorov said. “You do that when you have to do that.” … Fedorov’s play certainly caught Shanahan’s eye. “That was the best game Sergei Fedorov has played,” Shanahan said. “I think he’s the next player to really break out.”

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Off the ice: The Blues complained about an odor in their dressing room before their morning skate. Could it have been the old “paint the locker room to unnerve the victors trick?” Could Bowman have been looking for a way to distract the Blues? Joe Louis Arena officials assured the Blues that only the door had a new coat of paint.

Famous last words: Mitch Albom wrote in the Free Press: “The Wings came out with their eyes on the prize. Which in hockey is the net. They threw everything they could at Grant Fuhr — and they threw it from just about anywhere. Corners. Blue line. Center ice. Wherever. Then they rushed in after it, following their shots, going for rebounds. Never mind trying to blast the door down; bust it one hinge at a time. This is so sound a philosophy against a guy like Fuhr, you have to wonder where it was before this. The Wings kept storming the castle.”

Relive the glory: The Free Press has crafted a 208-page, full-color, hardcover collector’s book with fresh insights and dynamic storytelling about the 1996-97 Wings. It’s called “Stanleytown 25 Years Later: The Inside Story on How the Stanley Cup Returned to the Motor City after 41 Frustrating Seasons.” It’s only $29.95 and it’s available at RedWings.PictorialBook.com. (It’ll make a great Mother’s Day or Father’s Day gift for the Wings fanatic in your life!) Personalized copies available via myersgene@comcast.net.

More to read: Another new Wings book arrived in April from Keith Gave, a longtime hockey writer for the Free Press in the 1980s and 1990s: “Vlad The Impaler: More Epic Tales from Detroit’s ’97 Stanley Cup Conquest.” It is available through Amazon and other booksellers and a portion of the proceeds is earmarked for the Vladimir Konstantinov Special Needs Trust. (Plenty of Gave’s prose also appears in “Stanleytown 25 Years Later.”)

DAY 1:  Wings begin quest to end 42-year Cup drought

DAY 2:  Bowman finally makes the Fedorov switch Wings need

DAY 3:  How Wings finally solved Fuhr to take Game 2

DAY 4:  Wings, Shanahan try to break St. Louis hearts

DAY 5:  Yzerman, Wings take high road — and Game 3 vs. Blues

DAY 6:  Wings ready for fateful Game 4 vs. Blues

DAY 7: Wings miss ‘great opportunity’ vs. Blues, massive brawl erupts

DAY 8: Yzerman delivers stern message to Wings

DAY 9: Beat-up Detroit Red Wings ready for ‘Armageddon’ vs. Blues in Game 5

Even more to read: Red Wings beat reporter Helene St. James, who helped cover the 1997 Stanley Cup run, recently wrote “The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Detroit Red Wings.” Featuring numerous tales about the key figures from 1997, “The Big 50” is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. (Plenty of St. James’ prose also appears in “Stanleytown 25 Years Later.”)

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