Road to Stanleytown: Avs search for answers in the skies after 1997 Red Wings dominate Game 2

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 33: May 18, 1997

The backstory: The NHL did the Red Wings and Avalanche no favors with the schedule for the Western Conference finals. After two games in three days at Denver — which the teams split — everyone had one day to cross the country for Game 3 at Joe Louis Arena. The Wings arrived in Detroit first, and coach Scotty Bowman ordered most of the team to take the day off. The Avalanche spent their off day in the air. The topics of the day: Could the Wings continue to dominate the Avalanche in all facets of the series? How were they doing it? And could Colorado do anything about it?

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One man’s opinion: Hockey columnist Keith Gave wrote in the Free Press: “By the looks in their eyes, by their words spoken and unspoken — but mostly by the way they’ve barely competed early this series — you understand that this isn’t quite what the defending Stanley Cup champs had in mind. It certainly wasn’t being outplayed so dreadfully through two games, outhit, outscored, outshot, out-chanced, outmuscled, outworked, outrageously outclassed but nevertheless managing a series tie that must feel like kissing Cindy Crawford — or maybe Xena Warrior Princess.”

Gave listed the Avalanche’s issues: “The Colorado defense is overmatched against Detroit’s heavy forecheckers. The Avs’ best play, when they manage to get the puck, is to flip it out of trouble into the neutral zone. Their second-best play is icing. … The Colorado offense is nonexistent. It’s hard to score when you don’t have the puck. … When the defensemen aren’t backing in so far they’re standing on the rim of the crease to deflect pucks off their skates past Patrick Roy, they’re pinching in the offensive zone and getting burned. The forwards have abandoned the passing game, choosing instead to skate the puck into the Detroit zone against three or four defenders on the blue line.”

Gave, though, offered a warning for Wings fans: “Dazed and confused, perhaps. But let’s not plan the Avs’ funeral just yet. And nobody is more sensitive to this than the Wings. They have shown Colorado immense respect, not only by what they’ve said away from the ice the past week but how they’ve battled in the first two games. … Expect Colorado to play its best game of the series while the Wings try to sustain the pressure in front of a raucous Joe Louis Arena crowd that smells a kill.”

At The Joe: Bowman allowed about a dozen players to skate with coaches Dave Lewis and Mike Krushelnyski. Others wanted to skate but were told to stay away. “We wanted to take as much rest as we can,” Bowman said. The Grind Line — Kris Draper, Darren McCarty, Kirk Malty and Joe Kocur — and forward Tomas Sandstrom laced ’em up along with the Black Aces, the players scratched for all or most of the playoffs. Bowman said the Wings would meet the next day for their typical morning skate, although few would take the ice.

DAY 32: 1997 Detroit Red Wings’ luck turns series vs. Avalanche

DAY 31: What Wings were thinking entering crucial Game 2 

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

In the skies: Helene St. James described the Avs’ mindset: “Bound for enemy territory, the Avalanche chose not to practice. Better to sit on an airplane and think deep thoughts. Convinced they have been their own worst enemies and are lucky to have a spilt with the Red Wings, the Avs insist they will play more wisely in Game 3.” From captain Joe Sakic: “They did what they wanted to and we didn’t do what we wanted to do. We have to look in the mirrors and do what we can to make this team better.” From coach Marc Crawford: “When you play as individuals, teams that play a strong puck-possession game and move the puck well as the Red Wings do, they beat you. We’re not mystified by it.”

From right wing Scott Young: “They’re playing a real disciplined style, and that’s caused a problem because we’ve been stubborn. We’ve refused to get the puck in when they’re stacked at the blue line. They seem to be stacking the blue line a little more than last year.” From left wing Eric Lacroix: “Everybody knows that that’s not the Colorado Avalanche you’ve seen for the past few games. It’s as simple as that.”

Out East: The fifth-seeded Rangers, thoroughly outclassed and outmuscled in Game 1, swiped home ice from the third-seeded Flyers by winning Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, 5-4. Wayne Gretzky recorded his second hat trick of the playoffs and 10th of his career. “The first goal was a pretty good shot, but the other two, I was just pretty lucky,” Gretzky said. “It was my night for the puck to go it.” Teammate Mark Messier countered: “His luck’s been pretty good for 20 years.”

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Plus, Philadelphia’s Ron Hextall stopped Gretzky on two point-blank scoring chances in the final period. Hextall, the Flyers’ No. 1 goalie throughout the season, replaced Garth Snow in the second period after he surrendered five goals on 10 shots. Coach Terry Murray said he leaned toward starting Hextall for Game 3 at Madison Square Garden. At age 36, Gretzky moved from center to right wing to play on a line with Messier as the center and Esa Tikkanen as the left wing. In 12 playoff games, Gretzky had nine goals and six assists. Messier contributed a goal and two assists. Scoring for the Flyers were John LeClair, former Wings defenseman Paul Coffey, former Spartan Ron Brind’Amour and Shjon Podein.

Off the ice: In his off-day Octometer, Steve Schrader assigned two octopi to this comment: “Last week we were hoping the Wings could win a game in Denver. Turns out the Avalanche was lucky to steal one, eh?”

Famous last words: From captain Steve Yzerman: “We’ve played two pretty solid games, and we’ve only won one of them.”

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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 (It’ll make a great Father’s Day gift for the Wings fanatic in your life!) Personalized copies available via

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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