Road to Stanleytown: 1997 Detroit Red Wings’ luck turns in Game 2 vs. Avalanche

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: The Inside Story of How the Stanley Cup Returned to the Motor City After 41 Frustrating Seasons.”

Day 32: May 17, 1997

The backstory: After nine exhibition games, 82 regular-season games and 11 playoff games, the Red Wings’ season, for all intents and purposes, came down to Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. If the Wings lost at Colorado again and fell into a two-games-to-none hole, they would need to win four of five games against the defending Stanley Cup champions; a team that had beaten them in eight of their 11 regular-season and playoff meetings in the last calendar year. If the Wings won, though, especially after outplaying (but not outscoring) the Avalanche in Game 1, well, confidence would be sky high and Stanley Cup fever would be off the chart among fans in the Mitten. When the buzzer ended a wild Saturday night in Denver, two future Hall of Famers and 6½-foot wooden bench cemented their places in Red Wings lore.

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Déjà vu all over again: In the opener, played in slushy conditions because of a power failure, the Wings dominated all facets of the game and outshot the Avalanche, 35-19, but they still lost, 2-1, because of a five-minute lapse early in the third period and because of Patrick Roy’s superhuman goaltending. In Game 2, the same script appeared to be unfolding, except the ice actually was frozen inside McNichols Arena. The Wings owned a 30-11 advantage in shots after two periods, but they still trailed, 2-1.

Scott Young scored late in the first period for the Avs, and Claude Lemieux made it a two-goal lead late in the second period with his league-leading 11th playoff goal, his eighth in nine games. In less than a minute, the Wings’ luck finally turned and so did the series. Eighteen seconds after Lemieux’s goal, Sandis Ozolinsh committed his second high-sticking penalty. Twenty-four seconds after that, Igor Larionov tried to hit Steve Yzerman with a pass in the goalmouth, where Adam Foote was trying to tie him up. The puck struck Foote’s right skate in the crease, sending it high over Roy’s glove into the top of the net at 16:51. Game on!

Mother of all periods: The Wings scored three unanswered goals in the third period for a 4-2 victory. That was amazing enough. But how they did it couldn’t have been more dramatic. Yzerman scored one of the signature goals of his Hall of Fame career. Nicklas Lidstrom made the signature defensive play of his Hall of Fame career. Plus, grinder Darren McCarty threw in a late insurance goal on a breakaway.

When the fireworks were over, the Wings held a 40-17 advantage in shots, Colorado captain Joe Sakic was held without a shot and the series was knotted at a game apiece with the team planes pointed eastward. At 1:54, Sakic went off for holding. Sixteen seconds later, after Lidstrom passed from one point to Yzerman on the other, Yzerman hit Sergei Fedorov down low for the game-tying goal. Fedorov played a spectacular two-way game with a goal, an assist and seven shots. Soon after that goal, Roy preserved the tie with a diving save on Slava Kozlov. The go-ahead goal didn’t come until four minutes were left.

As Sakic and Slava Fetisov battled for the puck deep in the Wings’ zone, Yzerman swooped in, grabbed the puck on the end line in a corner and skated away as if he were 22 instead of 32. He went the length of the ice, dodged three Avs and Vladimir Konstantinov along the way, drove the net for a shot that hit Roy’s chest, collected the rebound behind the goal and banked it in off the back of Roy’s right pad and then left pad. “I just tried to throw it out in front of him,” Yzerman said. “Even if it doesn’t go in, there’s a chance that we might get a rebound.” Still, the victory might not have happened if not for one instinct, one reflex, one split second that epitomized Lidstrom’s six-year career.

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And, as was always the case in those days with Lidstrom, his feat almost went overlooked. With 2:42 to play, Sakic beat Yzerman on a face-off in the Wings’ zone. He tapped the puck to Young for a wide-open shot from the top of the circle. Mike Vernon came out 10 feet from the goal to cut down the angle, dropped to his knees and made the save. But the puck trickled to his right and behind him. Colorado’s Eric Lacroix outmuscled Larry Murphy for the puck and launched a point-blank backhander toward the empty net. But it didn’t go in. From the left side, Lidstrom glided behind Vernon, through the crease and with his outstretched stick somehow knocked away Lacroix’s shot.

“What an unbelievable play!” associate coach Dave Lewis said. “The biggest play of the series, right there. … I didn’t even realize what had happened because the play kept going. Then, after the replay, we realized what happened. We almost fell down. I was watching the video and I almost fell down.” McCarty saw Lidstrom’s play from behind the goal, where he was trapped. “You’re just watching it,” he said. “Then Nick just dives across, and it hits his stick. That was definitely the break we needed.” The only Wing not awed by the play was Lidstrom, who at the time had never been a finalist for the Norris Trophy despite being one of the game’s hardest workers, logging more minutes than any teammate, playing against every opponent’s top line and contributing scores of points. “It was my guy from the face-off,” Lidstrom said, “so I had to make up for letting him go along the boards. Just instinct. Just try to get in the way. Just try to get the puck out of there. I just reacted. I didn’t really have time to think. … I just tried to get in front of the net. I just tried to get my stick in the way.” A minute later, Brendan Shanahan shoveled a backhand pass from the Wings’ blue line to a streaking McCarty at center ice. With Foote in hot pursuit and hooking his hip, McCarty snapped a shot that beat Roy top shelf.

DAY 31: What Wings were thinking entering crucial Game 2 vs. Avalanche

DAY 30: Wings dominate Avalanche — and lose in wacky Game 1

The Wings said it: McCarty on Lidstrom: “He’s always overlooked. That’s the story of his career. He’s one of the most underrated players in the league. He does it all. … He doesn’t get the respect, but we know how good he is, and that’s what counts.” … From Shanahan: “This is probably the deepest we’ve had to dig.” … From Fedorov: “To say we would score sooner or later sounds good now. It wasn’t sounding so good in the second period.” … From coach Scotty Bowman: “Luck started to go our way. The first half of the game, we couldn’t get anything past Roy. There was no room.” … From Joe Kocur: “At this point of the Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s all-out war all the time. You do what you can get away with to win.”

The Avs said it: From Peter Forsberg: “We can’t play like this. We rely on Patty, and we can’t do that every game.” From Sakic: “If not for Patrick, they’d be up, 2-0. We all have to look in the mirror now. But we can come back. Always before, we’ve played our best hockey when our backs were against the wall. We have to make sure we go to Detroit hungry.” … From Roy: “I’m a little surprised at how flat we played the last two games. I thought we were going to come back a lot stronger tonight, especially after winning the last game.” … From Foote: “Maybe we got a little overconfident. But we’re not playing together and we’re trying to do cute things and trying to make the game harder than it should be. They haven’t changed their game. We’re the ones who changed ours.”

Off the ice: Jason La Canfora told the saga of an unsung hero in the Free Press: “A key member of the Red Wings sat alone in an airport hangar in Detroit after Game 2, awaiting a return trip to Denver. This member supported three players at once during the game and drew much praise for the performance — but got stuck with a middle seat on the ride back to Detroit. Heck, this member didn’t even have a name.

The mystery contributor was a small wooden bench built for the Wings by a friend of associate coach Barry Smith. The cramped visitors bench at McNichols Arena caused the Wings problems changing on the fly. Before, players had to sit on three chairs at the end of the bench, often losing their skate edges on the mental and having problems getting to the gate. But with the extra 6½-foot bench, the three overflow players could sit in comfort. Why bring it back to Detroit? ‘If we had left it in Denver, they would have burned it,’ trainer John Wharton said. ‘The arena people were not too happy about it, but the other bench wasn’t working. You have to find any edge you can, and it worked great.’”

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Famous last words: From Ralph Routon of the Colorado Springs Gazette: “It started with a stupid penalty by Colorado defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, who was whistled for high-sticking just 18 seconds after Claude Lemieux’s goal. At a time when the Avalanche needed to be smart, avoid such screwups and protect that lead, Ozolinsh’s penalty was beyond dumb. From that moment, the Wings were a different team. And their luck changed from one extreme to the other.”

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 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.”)

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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