On most nights, in most NHL seasons, the game is an entertaining
form of chaos, encased in glass and barely controlled. The
attraction lies in the furious barrage of bodies, the frenetic
flash of the puck and the seemingly disjointed action that
occasionally results in a fluke goal that helps define one
franchise and destroy another.
Coaches and commentators may talk as if they are watching Stratego
on ice, but for many fans the game still seems about as neat and
orderly as Dennis Rodman's Day Planner. Even in the playoffs the
teams often resemble two club fighters, closing their eyes and
slugging away, hoping to slip in a lucky knockout punch. The line
between champions and also-rans becomes as thin as the blade on a
skate, and the fans know better than to blink. With the right
sequence of breaks and bounces, they could see a team make
history, as the New York Rangers did last season. You just don't
know. On most nights, in most seasons, anyone can win, any crazy
thing can happen.
Then again, if you haven't seen the Detroit Red Wings lately, you
should be warned: This isn't most NHL seasons. This is, in fact,
one of those occasions when a team is so vastly superior to its
opponents that it brings a startling order to the usual mayhem on
the ice. Even the most hockey-illiterate airhead could have
skateboarded into the San Jose Arena last week and seen that the
team in red was the best in hockey. The Wings are scary good. ``We
roll out four great lines and six top defensemen,'' says Detroit
goalie Mike Vernon, ``and we never let up.''
In the first two rounds of the Western Conference playoffs, the
Red Wings took a scalpel and removed all suspense from the
proceedings. They pummeled the Dallas Stars in five games in the
opening round and then swept the San Jose Sharks in a series that
made the America's Cup look like a photo finish. When the Rangers
won last year for the first time since 1940, Detroit inherited the
dread designation as the team that has gone the longest without
winning the chalice. The Wings haven't won the Cup since '55 and
haven't even been in the finals since '66, but so far their title
run in '95 lacks the emotion and hype of the Rangers' drive to the
championship. It's Detroit's own fault, of course. The Red Wings
are more like the Pittsburgh Penguins of the early 1990s and the
Edmonton Oilers before that, steamrollering anyone between them
and the Cup, leaving nothing to chance.
``Those Penguins were so competitive that they didn't care whom
they played -- they knew they could win,'' says Detroit assistant
coach Barry Smith, who was on the Pittsburgh staff when the
Penguins won 11 straight playoff games in 1992. ``This team is the
same way. It's rising to that same level.''
The Sharks knocked off the favored Wings in the first round last
season, and Detroit last week exacted awesome revenge. It outshot
San Jose 147-61 in the four games and rang up scores that might
have been lifted from a bad tennis match: 6-0, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2. The
Wings were so efficient in eliminating the Sharks that you
expected them to wipe away their fingerprints before leaving the
They outhit, outskated, outpassed and outhustled San Jose. Other
than that, it could have gone either way. When the Sharks got
really desperate in Game 3, their captain, Jeff Odgers, picked a
fight with Detroit enforcer Stu Grimson in the third period.
Grimson decked Odgers with a right hook to the face. ``I find it
hard to believe the Calgary Flames lost to that team,'' says
Vernon, referring to the Sharks' surprising 4-3 series win over
Calgary in the first round. ``We just dominated the Sharks. We
played better than we have all year, and we've been pretty good
After winning the first two games in Detroit, the Wings wore their
old- time red uniforms into the Sharks' Silicon Valley theme park
and beat the teal out of the home team. Gordie Howe would have
taken an eye out of that big silly Shark's head through which the
home team makes its entry before each game. It's a good thing San
Jose had a guy with a snowboard jumping on a trampoline at center
ice between periods of Game 4. Otherwise, their crazy fans would
have had no one to cheer for. When the series mercifully ended,
without San Jose ever leading in a game, the crowd stood and
applauded -- perhaps out of relief that the mighty twister was
leaving town. ``That is the best team I've seen in a long time,''
says San Jose center Craig Janney. ``I would be shocked if they
didn't win it all.''
Over in the visitors' dressing room the Red Wings couldn't argue.
This is their year, their big chance, and they know it. Nothing
but the Stanley Cup will do. The Wings won the President's Trophy
for having the NHL's best regular-season record (33-11-4), giving
them home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. They have last
season's MVP in Sergei Fedorov and this season's favorite for the
Norris Trophy, as the league's best defenseman, in Paul Coffey.
Seven-time All-Star Steve Yzerman is still around, but you might
miss him. At times he plays with Detroit's checking line. He
sprained his right knee in Game 4 against the Sharks, but he was
hoping to recover by the end of the conference finals, which open
Thursday, against the Chicago Blackhawks. Did we mention the
coach? Some guy named Scotty Bowman. Has only won six Stanley
Cups, 913 regular-season games and 149 playoff games. ``There were
weaknesses in the Red Wings' game last season, but this year I
can't find any,'' says San Jose goaltender Arturs Irbe.
Bowman gathered the Red Wings at the start of the season, told
them what to do and then adopted a hands-off approach. Any minor
discipline problems were handled inside the dressing room. ``We
don't really have rules concerning staying out late and things
like that,'' says Smith. ``The players take care of everything
themselves. That's how committed they are.'' Bowman was so worried
about his team the day before Game 4 Saturday in San Jose that he
took two of his sons for a drive down to Monterey. ``To me, he is
what a coach is supposed to be,'' says Coffey. ``He told us the
system he wants. Now we either play it, or we don't.''
Coffey and Yzerman spoke to the team in the dressing room before
each of the first two playoff series and reminded the players that
the prize was still a long way off. ``This is as good a dressing
room as I've ever been in,'' says Coffey, who last week scored his
166th playoff point, breaking the career record for a defenseman.
``And I've been in some good ones.'' Earlier, between games in
Dallas, the Wings had gone to see the Detroit Tigers play the
Texas Rangers. Red Wing defenseman Slava Fetisov, not a very
patient baseball fan, lasted only a couple of innings before
heading for the exit. ``Two innings,'' he said, ``enough for me.''
Detroit had the talent last season but lacked two vital
ingredients: a big-game goaltender and a system the players
believed in. The goalie arrived a few days after coach Bowman
added the job of player personnel director to his duties last
June. Bowman sent defenseman Steve Chiasson to the Flames for
Vernon, who owns a Stanley Cup ring from Calgary's title in 1989.
Vernon went 19-6-4 with a 2.52 goals-against for Detroit this
season, but more than that, he infused his teammates with a
renewed confidence going into the postseason. All of sudden the
guy under the goalie pads for the Wings had the talent and the
nerve to match the skaters in front of him. ``I think I took a lot
of pressure off this team, from the front office on down,'' says
Vernon. ``I'm not saying I'm the answer, but I think I silenced
some critics and took the pressure off a lot of people.''
With a clutch man in net, Bowman figured he could sell a new
defensive-oriented approach to his players, even to his many
veteran stars. The proposition was simple: You can continue to put
up gaudy offensive numbers, or you can take a genuine shot at
winning the Cup. ``There's no secret to it,'' says Coffey. ``We're
not playing gung ho, score-10-goals-a-game hockey. We're playing
smart defensive hockey, and we're committed to winning. That's all
there is to it.''
The Red Wings somehow have firmed up their defense without
sacrificing much of their vaunted firepower. They still look as if
they huddle up before each rush and sketch a play on the ice.
Every player has a job to do and a place to be. There is order in
the hockey universe, and one team skates ahead of the rest. It may
not be very suspenseful, but still it's something to see.