Today in our countdown, we introduce you to the #8 team of all time – the 1996-1997 Detroit Red Wings. So far, we’ve seen two other Red Wings teams in our countdown, with the 2007-2008 team at #14 and the 2001-2002 team at #9. However, this team had something that those other teams didn’t – the weight of a 42 year Stanley Cup drought on their shoulders.
Since 1955, the Wings had not lifted Lord Stanley’s Cup and despite having the talents of Sergei Fedorov, the poise of Nicklas Lidstrom, the ferocity of Vladimir Konstantinov, and the leadership of Steve Yzerman, this team could not get over the hump. They reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1994-1995 only to be swept by the underdog New Jersey Devils. They had to overcome heartbreak in the 1995-1996 season as they set the NHL record for wins in a season, only to fall in the Conference Finals to their hated rivals the Colorado Avalanche. There was talk that Steve Yzerman was going to be shipped out as he couldn’t get them over the hump. It was truly a journey for the 1996-1997 Wings to reach the top of the heap.
The 1995-1996 Red Wings season was one of the greatest regular seasons in the history of the NHL. The Wings went an astonishing 62-13-7 for 131 points, setting the NHL record for wins in a season with 62, and finishing with the 2nd most points, next to the 1976-1977 Montreal Canadiens (60-8-12-132). The Wings were the 3rd best offensive team, the top defensive team, and were thoroughly dominant at times, having 6 different win streaks of 6 games or more throughout the season. After defeating Winnipeg in the first round and knocking off Wayne Gretzky and the St. Louis Blues in Game 7 on Steve Yzerman’s famous double OT blue line slapshot, the Wings faced their archrivals, the Colorado Avalanche in the Conference Finals. The Avs thoroughly dominated the Wings, and in game 6, the rivalry was born as Claude Lemieux checked Kris Draper into the boards from behind, breaking his jaw, nose, and cheekbone, and giving Draper a concussion. The Wings season was over. Their record breaking season was for naught. Their captain was rumored to be traded. Commence the 1996-1997 Detroit Red Wings
In the offseason, the Wings felt that they needed to bring in more offensive firepower and toughness. The Wings added Brendan Shanahan just 2 games into the 1996-1997 season, sending away Keith Primeau, Paul Coffey, and a 1st round pick. Shanahan had scored 44 goals the previous year, but also racked up 125 penalty minutes and brought the desired grit and toughness that the Wings were looking for. The first month and a half went by fairly uneventful aside from the Shanahan deal as the Wings stood at 10-6-2 heading into their matchup with the 12-4-3 Colorado Avalanche. This was the first meeting between the two teams since the Claude Lemieux hit on Kris Draper. However, Claude Lemieux sat out what would have been his first game back to Detroit, but the results were still the same as the Avs demolished the Wings 4-1 at the Joe and continued to foster the belief that the Wings simply were not strong enough or good enough to beat the Avalanche. The Wings continued to putter along, never really putting together a strong stretch, and they stumbled into the All Star break at 21-15-8. The Wings were still 2nd in their division and 3rd overall in the Western Conference, but they never seemed to be able to put together a strong stretch of 6 or 7 games. Their longest winning streak was just 3 games and their longest unbeaten streak was 7 games (5-0-2). They had failed to beat their archrivals in their 2 meeting so far and had done nothing to dissuade the thought that they were not a Cup Contender. The Wings picked it up after the All Star break, running through the next 20 games games to push their record up to 31-19-14. The real test came in their 3rd meeting with the Avs to see if the Wings had finally put it together. Sadly, Colorado once again dominated Detroit, winning 4-2 and beating the Wings for a 4th consecutive time and for the 7th time in the past 9 games. The Wings had one final rematch with the Avs in Detroit just one week later and it was their last chance to prove themselves. March 26th, 1997 – a date that will go down as the date that the Wings found themselves and became a team. Colorado jumped in front early, as Valeri Kamensky scored just 3:29 into the first period and Wings fans were immediately thinking “Here we go again”. However, something about this game was different. The Wings came after the Avs in the 2nd period, outshooting the Avs 23-7 in the period, but it was to no avail. With Colorado leading 4-2 in the 2nd, Igor Larionov and Peter Forsberg got tangled up and started to go at it. As the refs and linesmen attended to that situation, McCarty immediately went after Lemieux and beat the pulp out of him as Lemieux famously “turtled” to protect himself. Mayhem ensued as Vernon and Roy started to tango and everybody on the ice soon was engaged in a fight. The ice was littered with equipment and blood. Mike Vernon would later say that this was the moment that brought the team together. The Wings would receive a powerplay from all of that and would convert on a Nicklas Lidstrom blast and the deficit was just 4-3 heading into the third. The 3rd period was far more uneventful in terms of penalties, but the Wings managed to even up the score, making it 5-5 heading into overtime. The Wings had outshot the Avs 46-19, pushed them around, beat up their two biggest nemeses in Patrick Roy and Claude Lemieux, and they were still only tied 5-5. If they lost this game, it would all be for naught. However, the Wings only needed one shot to close out this game and it was fitting that it would be Darren McCarty to end it. The Wings finished the regular season at 38-26-18, good enough for the 3rd seed in the Western Conference. Their first round matchup was the St. Louis Blues.
The Blues managed to steal game 1 from the Wings in Detroit, with St. Louis goalie Grant Fuhr putting on a brilliant performance to shut them out 2-0. But buoyed by their new confidence, the Wings were not going to let the Avs get the best of them. Game 2 did not start out ideally as the Blues took the 1-0 lead. But the Wings came back, as Draper and Larry Murphy tallied to lead the Wings to a 2-1 win. The Wings controlled the rest of the series, knocking out the Blues in 6 games, making this series far less eventful than the previous year’s 7 game thriller. Next up for the Wings were the Mighty Ducks.
The Ducks were led by the extremely talented Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya. Selanne had 109 points and Kariya had 99 and they were one of the most difficult duos to shut down. The Ducks, while only lasting 4 games against the Wings, managed to push 3 of those games into OT, with game 2 going into triple OT, and game 4 going into double OT. However, unlike previous years the Wings came up with the goods in the clutch, peppering Anaheim goalie Mikhail Shtalenkov with 73 shots in the game 4 clincher. The Wings put a whopping 223 shots on goal in the 4 games (an average of 56 shots on goal a game) and truly showed how dominant they can be. They were going to need that dominance as awaiting them in the conference finals was…you guessed it, the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Colorado Avalanche.
Game 1 saw the Wings take the lead early, jumping to a 1-0 lead just 1:13 into the game. However, the Avs came back, with Joe Sakic scoring just 27 seconds later and Mike Ricci later scoring at the 6:13 mark. Despite the Wings best efforts, they could not get one past Patrick Roy as he stopped 34 of the 35 shots he faced to give the Avs a 2-1 victory and a 1-0 series lead. In game 2, the Avs quickly jumped to a 2-0 lead, and Wings fans were starting to lose hope that the Avs were just still too good and that the March 26th game was just a thing of the past. However, Igor Larionov tallied in the 2nd to pull the Wings within one and then in the 3rd the Wings poured in 3 more to take Game 2 4-2 and even up the series. The Wings used that momentum from Game 2 to take Game 3 2-1 as Slava Kozlov scored both Wings goals in the 2-1 win. Game 4 was another statement game for the Wings and a defining moment in the Wings-Avs rivalry. With the Wings crushing the Avalanche, Marc Crawford and Scotty Bowman got into a heated argument that saw Crawford try and get onto the Red Wings bench. Crawford was fined $10,000 ny the NHL and his team got the message. Heading back to Denver for Game 5 with their season on the line, the Avs responded in a big way, thumping the Wings 6-0 to send the series right back to Detroit. However, this Detroit team was not going to get pushed around by the Avs this year. The Wings and Avs played a tight game, with Detroit clinging to a 1-0 lead heading into the 3rd period. At the 6:11 mark of the 3rd, Sergei Fedorov beat Roy to give the Wings a 2-0 lead that they would not relinquish. Scott Young pulled the Avs within 1 with 5 minutes to go, but Brendan Shanahan scored an empty netter to seal the victory and send the Wings to the Stanley Cup Finals.
In the Stanley Cup Finals, the Wings faced the Philadelphia Flyers, led by their Legion of Doom line consisting of Eric Lindros, John LeClair, and Mikael Renberg. The Flyers were coming off a thrilling series victory over Wayne Gretzky and the New York Rangers and were looking for their first Stanley Cup since 1975. However, the Wings were buoyed with so much confidence from finally knocking off their arch rivals that they were simply not concerned with the Flyers. Game 1 was in Philadelphia, but it felt like Detroit had the home ice advantage. The Wings never trailed in the game, jumping in front 2-1 at the end of the first and hanging on for a 4-2 win. Game 2 was very similar as again the Wings jumped out in front 2-0 in the first, never trailed, and hung on for a 4-2 win. The Wings were heading back to the Joe with the ability to clinch their first Stanley Cup in 42 years. However, the Wings started slow in Game 3, allowing the Flyers to take an early 1-0 just 7 minutes into the first. Something about that goal must have kick-started the Wings as they brought an onslaught. The Wings scored 3 goals in the final 13 minutes of the first to take a 3-1 lead into the 2nd. The 2nd saw the Wings add two more goals. They cruised to a 6-1 win and a commanding 3-0 series lead. The Flyers seemed finished. Even their own coach Terry Murray, suggested that the team was basically in a choking situation. Game 4, with the Cup on the line. The Wings jumped on the Flyers early, determined to clinch the Cup on their home ice. The Wings took a 1-0 lead early and held on to that through the end of the first. In the 2nd, one of the most memorable goals in Stanley Cup Finals history was scored, as grinder Darren McCarty deked Janne Niinimaa inside out and then pulled the puck across the crease to beat the flailing Ron Hextall. The Wings held that 2-0 for the rest of the game, until Eric Lindros scored with just 15 seconds remaining to spoil the shutout. Nonetheless, the party had been started in Detroit. After questions about leadership and heart the previous year, Steve Yzerman finally put everything to rest. The city of Detroit had clinched its first Stanley Cup in 42 years and started a run of 4 Stanley Cups in 11 years.
This team was truly historic. While their record and statistics may not seem hall of fame, this team was composed of the right “stuff”. They had their superstars in Yzerman, Shanahan, and Fedorov. They could grind you down with their famous Grind Line of Darren McCarty, Kris Draper, and Kirk Maltby. Their defensive unit was so solid, led by Nicklas Lidstrom, Slava Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov, and Larry Murphy. And in goal, they had a Hall of Fame netminder in Mike Vernon. They had it all and thus they have earned their spot at #8 on our countdown.