By Stu Hackel
Detroit's mark of 21 consecutive victories at home has stirred up the beehive of naysayers who, not without at least some justification, believe an asterisk should accompany the Red Wings' new entry into the NHL Record Book. But no one should lose sight of the bigger picture here and confuse what the Wings have done as an indication that they are so formidable that winning the Stanley Cup is their inevitable fate. Far from it.
The Red Wings certainly know this and that while their home record is pretty amazing, their road mark is rather mediocre at 15-15-1. They're hardly invincible. And when you look at all the teams that have put together record streaks of one sort or another during the regular season, almost none of them won the Cup.
All the teams we'll discuss below were very good clubs, but for most of them, when it was time to find a higher gear, it wasn't there. Perhaps gunning for regular season glory made them peak too soon or exhausted them, perhaps these teams were not constructed for the particular demands of playoff hockey, which is different from the regular season. But whatever the reason, history shows that the kind of mark the Red Wings have established -- and will aim to extend at Joe Louis Arena when they play next on Friday against the Predators -- means very little in and of itself when the puck drops in the postseason.
First, as to this little debate about whether the Wings' record is legitimate, it is quite true that when the Flyers accomplished their previous mark of 20 straight home victories in 1976, the NHL had tie games and no overtime. However, the 1929-30 Bruins got two of their 20 victories in OT, but you don't see an asterisk by their entry in the record book because of a luxury that was not afforded to the Flyers.
The Wings have gotten three of their victories during their streak in the postgame skills competition (which I abhor, but you knew that). Regardless, they are wins by today's standard that awards teams two points.
Any sports league's record book could be filled with asterisks that mark different achievements during different eras, but they're not. When Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion had his 50-goal season in 1960-61, the second time it had been done, the campaign was 70 games long. He got number 50 in Game 68 for Montreal. But he went right alongside Maurice (Rocket) Richard into the books for most goals in a season, even though Rocket scored his in a 50-game season. No asterisk. It was a lesson Major League Baseball didn't care to learn six months later when Commissioner Ford Frick declared that Roger Maris' new single-season home run record of 61 would be emblazoned with a little star because he played in a longer season than Babe Ruth had, a shameful slight to Maris' feat.
The point is, eras are different, conditions are different and hitting a certain plateau in sports involves dealing with ever-changing obstacles and time frames and all manner of qualifying characteristics. While it's always worth pointing out those differences when comparing accomplishments, the variables are so numerous they would render almost every accomplishment unique unto itself if you wanted to factor all of them in and, in that case, you might as well not even bother keeping a record book. So as long as we have one that tracks the most and the longest of anything, it really makes more sense to keep it simple.
And, really, the NHL does accommodate the changes by having entries for longest undefeated streaks and longest winless streaks, so they can account for the era when games ended in ties.
(And, by the way, there are entries where we do see an asterisk in the NHL Record Book, because of the two neutral site games that each club played for a few seasons in the 1990s. The 1992-93 Senators hold the record for longest road winless streak in one season: 38 games. They were designated as the road team in a game against the Maple Leafs that was played in Hamilton in October of 1993 -- a game they lost -- but it is not included in their road losses, so there is an asterisk by that record indicating why the mark isn't actually 39 games.)
But that's not what we're dealing with as far as the Red Wings' record in concerned. Theirs is entirely wins at their home rink. And a win is a win, even if it comes in what some think is a contrived fashion.
But let's get to the larger issue, namely, what this streak means for Detroit going forward. The teams whose streaks of 20 wins the Red Wings broke by defeating Dallas 3-1 on Tuesday night both fell short of the Cup. The 1929-30 Bruins of Eddie Shore, Dit Clapper and Tiny Thompson, and the 1975-76 Flyers of Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber, Reg Leach and Dave Schultz, each lost in the final.
Let's look at some other teams that put together notable record streaks and see how they fared. The one that has the longest winning streak in NHL history, home and road games included, is the 1992-93 Penguins of Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Tom Barrasso. They were the defending Cup champions, in fact. They'd won two in a row and, as I recall, they won their 17 consecutive games at the end of the season, a streak that concluded on the final day of the campaign with a tie against the Devils. Those Penguins looked unstoppable. But they were stopped in the second round of the playoffs on a Game 7 overtime goal by David Volek of the Islanders.
The longest road winning streak in NHL history also belongs to the Red Wings. Their team from 1995-96 with Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and Paul Coffey, coached by Scotty Bowman, won 12 straight away from the Joe. They won their first of two straight Cups the following season, but that particular year they fell to the Avalanche in a vicious six-game series.
Back in the ancient days when the NHL still had tie games, the 1979-80 Flyers coached by Pat Quinn went 35 games without a loss, the longest undefeated streak ever. Think about it: 35 games is almost half the 80-game season. Pretty impressive, eh? But the Flyers lost the Cup final in six games to the Islanders.
Finally, when we get to the club that holds the record for the longest home undefeated streak (34 games), the 1976-77 Canadiens coached by Scotty Bowman with fellow Hall of Famers Guy Lafleur, Jacques Lemaire, Steve Shutt, Ken Dryden, Bob Gainey and the Big Three on defense (Guy Lapointe, Serge Savard and Larry Robinson), we find a regular season streak holder that was also the Cup champion. The Habs only lost eight of 80 games during the regular season and another two of their 12 games during three rounds of playoffs, ultimately sweeping the Bruins in the final. They were probably the best single season team of all time, followed closely by the Habs of the following campaign, who "slumped" to 10 regular season and three playoff losses.
The Habs also hold the record for the longest undefeated road streak. It was the 1974-75 Canadiens who pulled off that feat. But when the playoffs rolled around, they were ousted by Sabres in a six-game semifinal.
So the Wings are bucking history here, which isn't to say they can't or won't win the Cup. In Mike Babcock, they have an exceptional coach who knows how to keep them focused on the task at hand and recognizes that the regular season is all about creating good habits to carry into the playoffs. And they have the sort of veteran leadership that won't be swayed by the streak into taking anything for granted.
What Detroit has done is historic. Any team and every team wants to win each game it plays and the Wings have managed to do it in front of their home fans. They deserve every accolade that comes their way for however long they can keep the streak going.
But proud as they deserve to be, it don't mean a thing if you can't do it in the Spring.
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