Road to Stanleytown: In thrilling ‘Fight Night’ rematch, Red Wings prevail in Game 3

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 34: May 19, 1997

The backstory: For the first time since March 26 — a date that would live in Red Wings infamy because of Fight Night at The Joe — Claude Lemieux and the Colorado Avalanche were back on the ice in Detroit. This time, the mission wasn’t bloodlust for Lemieux’s cheap shot on Kris Draper in the previous season’s playoffs, but vengeance for eliminating the Wings after their record-setting 62-victory season in 1995-96. If the Wings could win Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, especially after dominating the Avalanche in Denver, the prospects of advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in three years and ending their championship drought would look much more promising. The fans at Joe Louis Arena were fired up. The Red Wings were fired up. But, as it turned out, for the first time in the series, the Avs also were fired up. An emotional night at The Joe automatically had its villains — Lemieux, Avs coach Marc Crawford and superhuman goalie Patrick Roy — but would there be heroes? Yes, and every fan roared for Mike Vernon and Slava Kolzov. Yet, the unsung heroes were just as important: Doug Brown, Sergei Fedorov — and Dr. John Finley.

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Voice of the turtle: On Fight Night at The Joe, Darren McCarty pounded Lemieux as he turtled on the ice. To his credit, despite the beating by McCarty’s fists and a vicious shot to the head by McCarty’s knee, Lemieux finished the game and nearly scored a third-period game-winner before McCarty scored in overtime. Before Game 3, Lemieux, the league’s leading goal-scorer in the playoffs, admitted he thrived on antagonistic cheering. “It’s a great motivator,” he said. “At home they cheer ‘Lemieux’ and here they boo, so it sounds the same. It may be a little louder here, but that’s all.” He was the last Avalanche player on the ice for warmups, but other than a few “Hey, Claude!” yells, the crowd didn’t really acknowledge him. That prompted Helene St. James to write in the Free Press: “Red Wings fans could hardly have played Claude Lemieux any smarter. … The man who can stare at jeering fans and say, ‘Go ahead, make my day,’ was barely noticed.” He finished with no points, no penalty minutes and five shots. Afterward, Lemieux exchanged words with McCarty. “I asked him for some French lessons,” McCarty said. “He gave me some. We’ll probably renew it the next game.” Lemieux refused to discuss it and claimed, “I didn’t hear what he said.”

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The first hero: After facing only 36 shots as the teams spilt Games 1 and 2 at McNichols Arena, Vernon did his best Roy impression and, in essence, stole Game 3. He made 27 sprawling, diving and acrobatic saves in the Wings’ 2-1 victory. As in Games 1 and 2, the Avs couldn’t get the puck out of their zone and couldn’t get a shot in the Wings zone. Crawford tried seven line combinations in the first seven minutes; the Avs’ first shot on goal didn’t come until 8½ minutes were gone. Then the Avs woke up — and Vernon also had to. Colorado produced 13 of the game’s next 16 shots. “Vernon was definitely the difference,” Avs defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh said. “He stopped us on the power plays.” In the first period, when the Wings committed three penalties in 5:32 — two by Martin Lapointe, one by McCarty — Vernon made his most stunning save. A dump-in caromed off the boards and into the slot. At the time, Vernon was behind the goal expecting to play the puck. Somehow, he dashed around the goal and out front to scoop up, as the Free Press called it, “Adam Deadmarsh’s weak shot at a 99% open net.” As three straight power plays continued, Vernon also robbed Peter Forsberg and Valeri Kamensky. Near the end of the period, he stopped a Joe Sakic blast fully extended. “When we need him,” Lapointe said, “he’s there.” Coach Scotty Bowman said: “He saved the first period from being a deficit to going in with a lead.”

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The second hero: The Wings carried a 1-0 lead into intermission also because of Kozlov and Fedorov, who were fantastic the entire game, except when Kozlov sat long stretches because the Wings were killing penalties and Fedorov was in the locker room with a rib injury. Incredibly for a team more than halfway to a potential Stanley Cup, until Game 3 against the Avalanche, the Wings never led after the opening period all spring. Kozlov, Fedorov and Brown were the second line to take the ice. About a minute into the game, Fedorov beat Alexei Gusarov at the blue line and broke into the zone. Fedorov put on the breaks near the boards, spun back to toward the blue line and feathered a pass toward the slot. With Brown clogging the goalmouth, Kozlov snared the pass, fired across his body and beat Roy at 1:12. Vernon’s goaltending preserved the lead until Sakic’s power-play goal at 14:47 of the second period. “These are two great teams,” Mitch Albom wrote in the Free Press. “And if you doubted that about Colorado, you weren’t watching its second period. It looked like the Avs were using jets and the Wings were using paper airplanes.”

The tide turned again in the final period, when the Wings outshot the Avs, 13-7. (It was 28-all for the game, after the Wings’ 75-36 edge in Denver.) Brown did the initial dirty work to set up the winning goal. Kozlov hit him with a pass near the face-off dot and, despite falling to his knees, Brown spun and fired the puck on goal and then sprang up to screen Roy. Fedorov corralled the rebound behind the goal and put it out front, where Kozlov beat Mike Ricci for the puck, completed a mini-circle and fired a high missile, as the Free Press called it, “picking the smallest of spaces above Roy’s right shoulder.” The Wings were 11:40 from a two-games-to-one lead in the series. “Two times I shoot the puck,” Kozlov said in his halting English. “I score two goals.” Afterward, the praise came from everywhere for the quietest of the Russians. “We looked at the ice time after two periods,” Bowman said. “He had only eight or nine minutes. That didn’t make any sense.” “He’s one of our most underrated players,” McCarty said. “Russians like to pass a lot,” Nicklas Lidstrom said, “but with a shot like that, he’s got to take more. The whole team has tried to tell him to take more shots.” The Free Press headline was Just be Koz.

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Off the ice: Fedorov played despite a debilitating rib injury that required a scary between-periods procedure. The final unsung hero, Dr. Finley administered a delicate rib block anesthetic to Fedorov before the third period. He had been checked by an Avalanche player and suffered a severe costochondral rib injury — the tearing of the tissue where the rib joined the cartilage. Captain Steve Yzerman all but begged Fedorov to continue playing. Fedorov tried to yell back that he couldn’t breathe, but his voice was barely a whisper. Fedorov’s hopes rested with Finley, who worked for the Wings for 47 years, from the days of the Gordie Howe-Ted Lindsay dynasty in the 1950s through the turn of the century. In his 2012 book “Hockeytown Doc,” Finley wrote: “Although anesthetizing the area is relatively simple, the danger associated with those procedures is that if the injecting needle is passed too deeply, it may easily penetrate the pleural (lung) cavity and cause the lung to collapse.” He had done a “fair number” of the procedures in general surgical cases but on patients who were sedated, anesthetized and lying still, never on a “player who was awake and struggling for every breath.” Finley instructed Fedorov to hold his breath as Dr. Dave Collon and trainer John Wharton held him down. Finley hit the spot with his needle and within two minutes, Fedorov declared: “No more pain. I can’t believe it. I feel great.” He was on the ice for the final period, played like the superstar he was and set up the decisive goal.

Famous last words: From Albom: “Here in Detroit, where the ice doesn’t melt and the transformers don’t explode, we like our cars homemade and our hockey players imported. Especially the ones whose names end with ‘ov’ and who skate with the red-and-white sweaters down at Joe Louis Arena. In case you’re confused, Colorado, they’re the ones you’re seeing in your bad dreams this morning. How about thatov? The Red Wings got only two goals, and both came off wonderful individual efforts by fast skaters and quick shooters who play in the rock group we call the Russian Five.”

GAME 2: Red Wings’ luck turns vs. Avalanche

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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