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 49: June 3, 1997
The backstory: Hockey pundits and fans debated whether Terry Murray’s wholesale changes for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final were a sign of panic or a sign of brilliance. Garth Snow for Ron Hextall between the pipes? Longtime sniper Dale Hawerchuk from the second line to the fourth? Journeyman checker John Druce from the fourth line to the second? Swapping size for speed? Staying with outmatched defenseman Kjell Samuelsson for his third game since January neck surgery? Adding rookie forward Colin Forbes for his first playoff game, only the fourth of his career? Those moves prompted Keith Gave to predict in the Free Press: “The smart money suggests it could be over in 20 minutes. The first period is crucial. If all the changes don’t revive the Flyers and get them off and running early, they could be facing a sweep.” Philadelphia already had lost its home-ice advantage with an embarrassing performance in Game 1; a loss in Game 2, in the long history of NHL, all but doomed its chances to end a 22-year Stanley Cup drought. Since the finals went to seven games in 1939, 40 series had started 2-0. The good news for Hockeytown: 18 series then ended in a sweep. More good news: Only three teams rallied from 0-2. The bad news: Twice, it happened against the Wings (in 1942 and 1966).
Game 2: “Halfway home.” That was the Free Press headline. “Cup’s half empty.” That was the Philadelphia Inquirer headline. Once again, the Wings beat the Flyers by a 4-2 score. They were halfway to their first Stanley Cup since 1955. And they were headed all the way home for Games 3 and 4. Here’s the Game 2 recap from “Stanleytown 25 Years Later” written by Jason La Canfora:
He raised his arms, flashed a surprised smile and calmly skated over to the Red Wings’ bench. He had scored the go-ahead goal and changed the tenor of the Stanley Cup Finals with one slap shot.
Just another day in the life of Kirk Maltby, grinder-turned-playoff star. Maltby scored one of the biggest goals in recent franchise history, the winner in a 4-2 victory over the Flyers, but he was as laid-back and aw-shucks as ever after Game 2.
“The whole thing has been what you dream about as a kid,” Maltby said. “I’m just happy to be here.”
The Wings, who decided between taking Maltby or a 12th-round draft pick in a 1996 trade with Edmonton, were happy he was here, too. They took a dominating two games to none lead in the finals thanks in large part to Maltby.
Maltby watched the Wings blow a two-goal lead in the final 2:18 of the first period. He sat helplessly on the bench as the Flyers outskated and outhit the Wings, rejuvenated the CoreStates Center crowd and renewed their Stanley Cup hopes.
Then Maltby did something about it. He churned along the right wing and blasted a shot from about 45 feet, above the face-off circle, and beat goalie Garth Snow low to the glove side.
“I didn’t even see it go in,” Maltby said.
The Wings suddenly led, 3-2, at 2:39 of the second period, and the Flyers were deflated. They were finished when Brendan Shanahan one-timed a pass from Martin Lapointe for his eighth playoff goal midway through the third period.
What a playoff run for Maltby. He scored four goals in five games — including the first two finals games — appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and shattered the so-called SI jinx. This was the same Kirk Maltby who went 36 games before scoring in the 1997 season. The same Kirk Maltby who played in 13 career playoff games before scoring in spring 1997. The same Kirk Maltby with six goals the past two regular seasons combined.
“I played against Malts in junior, and he scored 50-some goals,” Darren McCarty said. “He can put the puck in the net.”
Maltby provided the perfect ending to a stirring beginning to Game 2.
The Flyers shook up their lineup after Game 1’s wake-up call. Defenseman Petr Svoboda was out with a fractured bone in his right foot. They went for more youth and more speed and more Legion of Doom. Dale Hawerchuk, an aging future Hall of Famer, was dropped from the second line to the fourth. Two bangers also were dropped from the fourth line — not that it should have mattered that much, because coach Terry Murray vowed to play Eric Lindros’ line more.
Murray’s biggest move, though, was to replace Ron Hextall with Snow, he of the monstrous shoulder pads — the fourth goalie swap of the playoffs.
Game 2 opened with another Kjell Samuelsson blunder. His errant pass gift-wrapped Joe Kocur’s breakaway goal in Game 1, and this time he lost the puck to Shanahan in the neutral zone. Shanahan fired from about 35 feet out, off Paul Coffey’s skate and past Snow on his glove side. The game was 97 seconds old.
Coffey continued his rough series. He was on the ice for four of the Wings’ first five goals, and his second penalty of the opening eight minutes led to the second goal of the period.
McCarty’s beautiful drop pass let the Wings set up in the Flyers’ zone on the man advantage. They rotated the puck to Steve Yzerman, who put in his own rebound from the side of the net with McCarty and Tomas Sandstrom in front.
Then Shanahan was sprung on a breakaway by a 55-foot pass and with an array of dekes had Snow cleanly beaten. Fire up the motorcade. Get out the confetti. The Cup was coming back to Detroit.
Not so fast. Instead of creating a 3-0 lead, Shanahan’s shot trickled off the outside of the net with four minutes in the first period. Then the Wings fell into a defensive shell, just as in Game 1, and were outshot, 13-2, for the rest of the period.
Rod Brind’Amour, the former Michigan Stater, scored power-play goals 1:09 apart to tie the game before the period ended. The goals were identical: Brind’Amour won face-offs, got the puck back to rookie Janne Niinimaa and went to the goal to deflect his shot from the point past Mike Vernon.
“They really took it to us pretty good,” Larry Murphy said. “A couple of bounces and it could have been a different story.”
That set the stage for Maltby, the playoff hero, the hockey Cinderella.
And for the Flyers to ponder again why they blew their home-ice advantage.
“We’re still shooting ourselves in the foot with giving up soft goals,” Brind’Amour said. “And it’s more than just the goaltending.
“It’s an overall team breakdown on defense.”
Actually, that didn’t happen completely until the teams flew to the Motor City for Game 3. The Flyers at least couldn’t blame Snow or Coffey — Murray switched goalies for a fifth time — and Coffey, on the ice for six of the Wings’ eight goals and in the penalty box for a seventh, suffered a series-ending concussion in Game 2 on a hit from McCarty.
The three stars: As selected by the Free Press’ Steve Schrader: “No. 1 Brendan Shanahan — He scored early and he scored late. In between he had a whale of a game, the kind the Wings have been missing the past two years. No. 2 Mike Vernon — Even though he looks smaller than Garth Snow’s shoulder pads, he came up big again. He made 29 saves and gave up only two goals, on deflections. No. 3 Steve Yzerman — Another two-way gem for the Captain. He scored the second goal and more than once prevented the Flyers’ third goal.”
Goat of the game: Schrader selected Coffey: “Shanahan’s first goal deflected off the former Wing’s skate, and then Coffey immediately put the Flyers on the defensive by committing two penalties (Yzerman scored on the second power play.) Maltby’s second-period goal went between Coffey’s skates, and he also was on the ice for Shanahan’s second goal. Scotty Bowman must be smiling somewhere.”
The turning point: Schrader singled out Yzerman: “With about 11:20 left in the second period and the Wings up, 3-2, Murphy was caught pinching and Eric Lindros took the puck up-ice with the Wings caught in a line change. Lindros tried to hit Brind’Amour cutting into the slot, but Yzerman skated the length of the ice to tie up Brind’Amour in the nick of time.”
Worth noting: Thanks in part to its shooting gallery late in the first period, the Flyers outshot the Wings for the game, 31-28. Detroit had not been outshot in its 17 previous playoff games, although the Avalanche matched the Wings in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals. … Brind’Amour’s goals followed a high-sticking penalty on Slava Fetisov and a hooking call on Igor Larionov. … Despite additional ice time for his Legion of Doom line, Lindros’ stat line was dismal — no points, three shots, minus-2 rating. A day before Game 2, Murray announced changes to his second and fourth lines. He also changed Lindros’ line, but it was a secret until game time. He dropped Mikael Renberg to the second line and elevated rookie Dainius Zubrus to Lindros’ line, where he had played in the Eastern Conference finals. Combined, John LeClair-Lindros-Zubrus finished with one assist, two penalty minutes, nine shots and a minus-6 rating. … Despite a league-high 78 playoff shots, Shanahan had only one empty-net goal in his last six games before Game 2. He took a game-high five shots and scored twice. “I always preach to myself that as long as I’m getting the chances and the shots on goal, the goals are gonna come,” he said. “But it was frustrating that I wasn’t getting them in bunches.”
Beginning of the end: Although the Wings still needed two victories to win the series, Keith Gave wrote in the Free Press that it was a fait accompli. Among Gave’s comments: “Strike up the band. Plan the parade route. Forty-two years of futility are about to end. There’s a dance Saturday night at The Joe. Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings have a date with the Stanley Cup. It will be over soon, quite likely in two games. Two nearly identical 4-2 victories on foreign ice proved beyond reasonable doubt that these Philadelphia Flyers are hopelessly overmatched. Can’t skate, can’t defend, can’t stop the puck. Can’t compete. Can’t win. Case closed. The sweep is on.” … “Much was made of coach Terry Murray’s decision to play Garth Snow in goal instead of Ron Hextall, the Flyers’ scapegoat in Game 1. Didn’t make a difference. They’re both the same goalie, both NHL backups on a team without a No. 1 guy.” … “And neither guy stands a chance when Paul Coffey, the former Red Wing, lives up to the harsh criticism leveled at him by Wings coach Scotty Bowman.” … “What we have seen so far of this series has been a mismatch, but at least there’s a possibility it could get interesting. The teams seem to be developing a hate for each other, with a lot of shoving and yapping after the whistle.”
They said it: From Lindros: “The word quit hasn’t entered this room.” From Yzerman: “We’re certainly happy with the way the series is going so far.” From LeClair: “We can’t feel sorry for ourselves.” From Snow: “I didn’t play well at all, and there’s no excuse for that. I’m disappointed. We’ve yet to get a lead in this series because every time we draw close, we have a breakdown.” From Murray: “Our goaltending remains a problem. We have to have a higher responsibility to ourselves as a team and to our fans to play better — and it starts with goaltending. We’re not getting the big stops once again, and that’s your biggest nightmare in the finals.”
Off the ice: CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada” telecast started with these words: “This game is dedicated to the memory of Rose Cherry.” A montage followed of wedding photos and later clips of Don and Rose Cherry. She had died at 62 from cancer two days earlier in the Toronto area, an illness her husband of 40 years kept secret for most of a year. It was announced before Game 1 that Don Cherry, hockey’s most bombastic commentator and an icon in Canada, was skipping the finals because of an illness in his family. … The CBC showed country-music DJ Jim Bosh arriving at the CoreStates Center after driving a Zamboni from Detroit nearly 600 miles over four days. Bosh, who worked at WWWW-FM (106.7), said the Zamboni averaged about 9 m.p.h. — except when it overheated and needed a break aboard a flatbed truck. As the Zamboni reached the arena, a Flyers fan on in-line skates whacked at it with a hockey stick. … The NHL got around to fining the Colorado Avalanche $5,000 for not talking to the media before Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.
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Famous last words: Bowman and Coffey repeatedly had locked horns during the defenseman’s time with the Wings and maybe even more so afterward. Privately, Bowman said the Wings would never win the Cup with Coffey on the team. After Coffey struggled again in Game 2, Bowman said: “I don’t want to say anything bad about Paul. If Paul were with this team instead of the one he was with it’d be better for him. He’s a Hall of Fame player.”
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 email@example.com.
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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