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: The Inside Story of How the Stanley Cup Returned to the Motor City After 41 Frustrating Seasons.”
Day 12: April 27, 1997
The backstory: On a Sunday afternoon in St. Louis, the Red Wings needed one victory to eliminate the Blues and capture a first-round series for the third straight season. The Wings hadn’t done that since 1954-56, during the dynasty of Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Alex Delvecchio and Terry Sawchuk. If the Wings failed to win Game 6 at the Kiel Center, where they had split Games 3 and 4, the teams would cross half the country yet again for the terror of a Game 7 on Tuesday night at Joe Louis Arena.
Game 6: On a nifty, unassisted play that he started near his blue line and ended after squeezing through three Wings, Brett Hull put St. Louis in front on its first shot, 2:12 into the game. But Mike Vernon played spectacularly and stopped the Blues’ final 24 shots. The Wings tied it on a power play 6½ minutes after Hull’s goal when Vladimir Konstantinov darted past Grant Fuhr and created a screen for Slava Kozlov, who fired the puck between Fuhr’s pads for his second goal and second power-play goal in as many games.
“Kozzie today played the best game I’ve ever seen him play,” captain Steve Yzerman said. The assists went to Sergei Fedorov and Igor Larionov. After the Wings started the series 2-for-29 on the power play, Kozlov’s goal capped a 3-for-7 run. The go-ahead and series-winning goal also came on a man advantage, 67 seconds into the second period, which was 38 seconds after rookie Jim Campbell cross-checked Slava Fetisov in the face. Tomas Sandstrom, for his first point of the series, passed across the crease to Brendan Shanahan, who waited for Fuhr to go down and then shot high. The Grind Line, fittingly, finished the scoring 8:24 into the final period. Kirk Maltby created a turnover deep in the Blues’ zone, Darren McCarty fired the loose puck on net and Maltby deposited the rebound past Fuhr. Final: Wings 3, Blues 1.
The controversy: The Blues tied the game at 2 with 52.8 seconds left in the second period after a fortuitous bounce off the glass. Or so they thought. From the side of the net, Pierre Turgeon collected a Geoff Courtnall rebound and shoveled a backhander under the outstretched arms of a diving Vernon. But video replay left no doubt that part of Turgeon’s left skate was in the crease when the puck bounced out of the crease for an instant before landing on his stick. There was no goaltender interference or anything else amiss, but, by rule, Turgeon’s skate couldn’t be in the crease when the puck wasn’t. The Blues were irate.
Fuhr later declared: “Unfortunately, the games are decided upstairs now rather than on the ice.” Defenseman Marc Bergevin, a former Wing, said: “The rule is the rule. And that’s the rule. But it’s a dumb rule.” Nobody agreed more than Wings coach Scotty Bowman. For starters, he thought the call could have decided the game. “Big. Huge. Huge,” he said. “It probably meant going back (to Detroit) for another game. The crowd was into it.”
He added: “They’ve got to really refine this rule. … It’s a tragic thing. We’re just lucky it wasn’t us.”
The aftermath: After the final horn and the traditional handshake line, the Wings celebrated little more than they would a victory in February. Jason La Canfora wrote in the Free Press: “Red Wings players spoke calmly in their designer suits. They were relieved, happy and restrained. Ties were straight. Collars were buttoned. No beer covered heads; there were no champagne explosions. This was all business. One team down, three to go.” Joe Kocur said: “We won the game; that’s the best way to put it. There wasn’t any extra enthusiasm. Guys were happy to win the series and get ready to move on.” Larry Murphy said: “It’s always a luxury to finish early.”
Worth noting: For as well as Fuhr played, Vernon’s performance wasn’t far behind and in some ways statistically better. Bowman sought out Fuhr to congratulate him. “I’ve seen him at his best,” Bowman said, “and I don’t think he’s been any better than he was in this series.” Fuhr recorded two shutouts, posted a 2.18 goals-against average and had a .929 save percentage. Vernon didn’t have a shutout but had two more victories, beat Fuhr with a 2.07 goals-against and had a .917 save percentage.
“Mike gives us confidence,” Bowman said. “He’s an experienced goaltender. It’s really tough going against the Grant Fuhrs and Patrick Roy last season. They’ve won so much, they’ve carried teams. There is so much pressure.” … Hull’s two goals and seven assists tied Wayne Gretzky’s team record for points in a six-game series. … In the end, the Wings won the battle of special teams. Detroit went 6-for-42 (14.3%) on the power play and 32-for-37 (86.5%) on the penalty kill. St. Louis was 5-for-37 (13.5%) and 36-for-42 (85.7%). … Free Press headline: Round won. St. Louis Post-Dispatch headline: Crease Job Folds Blues.
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Off the ice: Instead of playing a Game 7, the Wings could watch two other Game 7s determine their opponent in the Western Conference semifinals. At 8 p.m. Tuesday, second-seeded Dallas played seventh-seeded Edmonton. If the Stars won, they would play third-seeded Detroit. At 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, fourth-seeded Anaheim played fifth-seeded Phoenix. If the Stars lost, Detroit would play the Ducks-Coyotes winner. No matter what, the Wings, despite needing six games to dispatch St. Louis, would have four or five days to rest between rounds.
Famous last words: Trade rumors each March seemed to throw Kozlov into a funk. The quietest of the Russians had plenty to say after Game 6: “My confidence was fine at the beginning of the playoffs, but I didn’t have enough ice time playing on the third or fourth lines. That’s why I didn’t score. I had no chances. Now I play with Russian Five. They pay attention to Igor and Sergei, so I have lots of room to skate.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.”)
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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