Steve Yzerman grabbed the puck and rushed down the left wing,
carrying Washington Capitals center Esa Tikkanen on his back for
the last 30 feet the same way he had carried the Detroit Red
Wings for 15 seasons. Whether it's the weight of a franchise or
200 pounds of fractious Finn, Yzerman, the Detroit captain,
never has been afraid of heavy lifting. When Yzerman and his
chaperone fell in a heap and rammed into Capitals goalie Olaf
Kolzig, the puck squirted free. Red Wings forward Tomas
Holmstrom swooped in unattended and put the puck home, just 35
seconds into Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals. That's
Washington: first in war, first in peace, lousy in the first
This is an article from the June 22, 1998 issue
This wasn't hockey, it was a tantalizing game of keepaway. Every
time overmatched Washington would get close, Detroit would
merrily skip out of reach again. Sometimes the teams would
emphasize defense, sometimes offense, but no matter which way
the game flowed, the Red Wings would come out a goal better. If
you had told the Capitals before the series that through three
games they would have held Detroit without a power-play goal,
limited the duo of center Sergei Fedorov and wing Brendan
Shanahan to one goal, had some production from forwards Peter
Bondra and Adam Oates and received superior goaltending from
Kolzig than Detroit had had from Chris Osgood, they probably
would have liked their chances of winning their first Stanley
Cup. Instead, Detroit led the best-of-seven tease 3-0 and had a
chance to wrap up its second straight Cup on Tuesday.
The reflected glow from the Cup is soft and flattering, and
Yzerman, nicked and dented but still with a striking, boyish
face, has never looked better. Last year's championship
illuminated the one facet of Yzerman's game that 563 career
goals and six straight 100-point seasons never could. "Funny how
it works," he says. "I'm not a huge scorer anymore"--his 155
points in 1988-89 are the most in an NHL season by anyone not
named Gretzky or Lemieux--"but over the past couple of years
I've become the player that I should have been all along. More
of a defensive player than an offensive player."
This conceit is as remarkable as the Beatles' announcing they
mildly regret having done all that gold-record I Wanna Hold Your
Hand stuff rather than heading straight to Sgt. Pepper, but
defense has been the foundation of Yzerman's game since 1994-95.
Before that season Detroit coach Scotty Bowman talked to Yzerman
about the evolution of Montreal Canadiens star Jacques Lemaire
in the '70s and Pittsburgh Penguins standout Ron Francis in the
early '90s, offensive centers who, because of the wealth of
firepower on their formidable teams, tailored their games to a
more defensive style. The one-way Red Wings, Bowman said, had to
change. With Fedorov's emergence as a scorer and with the
acquisition of center Igor Larionov, a strong, sage locker room
voice to complement Yzerman's, Detroit no longer needed its
captain to fill the net. "Actually players like getting to lay
off the numbers," Bowman says now. "You score 50 one year,
you're expected to get 50 the next, and players enjoy not having
to get all the goals. They enjoy winning more."
Recently, Yzerman said his 24 goals in the 1997-98 regular
season represented "a career year." Everyone took notes and
nodded, missing the intended irony.
His play in the postseason has been less subtle. In fact, it has
been so direct and unmistakable that even old India hands at the
CIA could have detected the explosion as long ago as February,
when Yzerman played in the Olympics. The experience in Nagano
might have been a drag on the NHL, but it rejuvenated Yzerman.
He fed off the energy of his Team Canada roommates--Wayne
Gretzky, Martin Brodeur and Rod Brind'Amour--and gamboled in the
high-tempo games. "I'm not any quicker goal line to goal line,"
Yzerman says, "but I've been concentrating on moving my feet.
It's just a matter of doing it, getting the puck and going. You
get into a tendency of getting the puck and looking around. You
should just take off and worry about doing something with the
Against Washington, Yzerman took off again. He set up the
winning goal in Detroit's 2-1 Game 1 victory, scored twice (once
shorthanded) in the 5-4 overtime win in Game 2, and created the
goal that took the Capitals and the home crowd out of the match
early in Game 3. He played 70 minutes, high among Red Wings
forwards, in the first three games while winning 66% of his
face-offs. In an era that supposedly belongs to big, young
forwards like Eric Lindros, Jaromir Jagr and Peter Forsberg,
easily the best player in this postseason has been a 5'11",
185-pounder who is not conspicuously strong, stopwatch fast or,
at 33, young. "He's that rare athlete who can lift his team,"
Capitals left wing Brian Bellows says of Yzerman. "He defines
the personality of his team. Their 'no quit' comes from him."
Yzerman simply will not lie down, although he can be pancaked to
the ice in the prone position, as Capitals menace Dale Hunter
did in Game 1. Hunter knocked Yzerman down in the Washington
crease, used him as a Barcalounger for a few seconds and pressed
his face into the ice before raking his glove across Yzerman's
kisser in what hockey players call a face wash. When asked the
next day if he found the tactic offensive, Yzerman replied,
"That depends on whether it's a new glove or an old glove. Old
gloves tend to stink."
"You'll notice everyone was getting excited about what Hunter
did to Stevie," Red Wings associate coach Dave Lewis said.
They had to get excited about something. Game 1 was one of those
January-in-June matches, as intense as a zephyr. While playoff
series often begin slowly, there hadn't been this much of a
feeling-out process since prom night. "We got a lead," Fedorov
said, "and then we stood out there chewing gum or something."
The Red Wings cruised to an early 2-0 advantage, then hung on in
the final 10 minutes. If the fans wanted a glut of goals, it
seemed, they'd have to wait for the World Cup.
Of course, hockey can also be a game of explosive action,
Exhibit A being Game 2. The Red Wings' Stanley Cup slogan, Raise
Your Hands--a reference to their octopus good-luck
charm--apparently also was what the Capitals were expected to do
while asking permission to play with the puck in the first
period. But Detroit's dominance translated into a mere 1-0 lead,
Washington put three goals past Osgood in the second period, and
the situation blessedly dictated that the more skilled Wings
embark on an aggressive, eye-catching game of catch-up. "We like
to play that way," a grinning Yzerman said the next day. "Our
coaches don't." The Capitals blew leads of 3-1 and 4-2, with
Yzerman's shorthander seven minutes into the third period
kick-starting the Detroit comeback, but they should have had a
5-3 advantage with fewer than 10 minutes remaining when Tikkanen
made a gaffe that altered the series.
Tikkanen is the most prolific playoff scorer in history--at
least in terms of postseason production (72 goals) compared with
that of the regular season (244), a ratio unmatched among
players with at least 30 playoff goals. Tikkanen has a heavy
shot, one that Osgood was obliged to respect when Tikkanen
skated in alone after gathering in a rare Yzerman giveaway. He
put Osgood down with a fake slap shot, pulled the puck wide and
had a net more vacant than his stare after he pushed the puck
past the far post. Tikkanen's blunder was the most blatant Cup
mistake since the McStick incident late in Game 2 of the 1993
finals. Montreal caught Los Angeles Kings defenseman Marty
McSorley using an illegal stick, scored on the ensuing power
play and then won in overtime to rob the Kings of a 2-0 series
lead going back to L.A.
After Tikkanen's misplay, the Red Wings stormed back to tie the
game in regulation before winning it in overtime on Kris
Draper's goal. An extra session wasn't needed in Game 3 because
Fedorov scored the winner with five minutes left, but Yzerman
was the most dangerous forward in the final minutes even as the
Capitals pressed. "When the game is on the line, that's when you
see his real value," Bowman says. "We move him from center to
left wing, and he does the job. He's the perfect example for our
team because he's going to make the big play."
Yzerman, who led playoff scorers with 24 points through Sunday,
has been making them all along, from the Dead Things era of the
1980s to a franchise that could call itself the Team of the '90s
and blush only moderately. The difference between then and now
is the Red Wings have a group of players who are talented enough
to follow, who also are flattered by their reflection in the
Cup. Yzerman will win the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the
playoffs--unlike the rest of the country, the voters have to
watch the games--and it will be one more vanity mirror for a
player who had to lower his sights to secure a place in history.
"When you're a kid playing hockey and going to all those
tournaments, you're winning everything, so you kind of take it
for granted," Yzerman says. "You have no doubts that this guy's
a winner or that guy's a winner. As my career went along without
an NHL championship, there were times when I began to wonder if
there was something missing in me. You fall back on the idea
that, if you do your best and your teammates do their best,
everything will work out. But I admit to having had some doubts
along the way. The perception other people have of you changes
once you win the Cup, but for me, winning it the first time
reconfirmed what I wanted to believe--even when I was having
The doubts are gone, and the Capitals seem sure to follow.
'no quit' comes from him."