We tend to talk a lot this time of year about how there’s not always a ton of correlation between what happens in the regular season and what ultimately transpires in the playoffs.
The Washington Capitals are a scoring force from October to April, but that won’t apply when games tighten and turn on a bad goal here or there. That will be the Buffalo Sabres’ time to shine, regardless of how irregular their season-ending play is right now.
You know how these arguments go.
But for every inconsistency between regular and post-season play, the 82 games that precede the black-and-blue derby undeniably offer some relevant precedents, none more direct than the events of March 26, 1997.
We at The Hockey News are currently talking to people from all over the hockey world as we work to put out two books this fall, one focusing on hockey’s greatest teams, the other built on the sport’s best-ever rivalries.
The ferocious late-‘90s feud between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche is certainly one of those.
Rivalries are most naturally born out of geography or a long, shared history of battles. But the clash between Detroit and Colorado was bloody competition in its purest form because it had nothing to do with proximity or the past – heck, the Avs were in their first year in Denver when the teams met for the West final in 1996.
Unfortunately, the bickering boiled over in that series only after Kris Draper was the victim of an incredibly cheap hit by Claude Lemieux.
Colorado won that series in six games, then took the Cup, leaving Detroit fans to ponder another failed season and a championship drought that stretched back to 1955.
The Wings began the next season by adding Brendan Shanahan. They finished it by winning the first of back-to-back titles, beating out the Avs in the playoffs after beating them down in the famous Joe Louis Arena March mash-up that many – including Shanny – believe provided a big thrust in the Wings’ Cup push.
“That game in March really was the turning point for us and I don’t think we thought it was going to be,” said Shanahan, who obviously had no trouble picking up the anti-Avs cause even though he wasn’t on the team when Draper was dinged the previous season. “We didn’t have anything planned, it just sort of happened. I don’t think any of us said, ‘We’ve got to make this happen.’
“The opportunity just sort of presented itself. We had the right people on the ice at the time and they had the right people on the ice at the time and suddenly it became this huge game, huge moment.”
To wit: After playing three gloves-on games to start the year, the Wings opted to extract their revenge during a brawl that included Shanahan and Patrick Roy doing their best Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon impression before Roy and Mike Vernon got down to business.
Darren McCarty tore after Lemieux, likely to the delight of everyone in hockey who wasn’t either Lemieux’s teammate or blood relative. (Come to think of it, I bet even a couple second cousins thought he had it coming.)
Beyond the brawl, the Wings also made a third-period comeback with, of course, McCarty scoring the game-winner in overtime. Two months later, Detroit also got the best of Colorado in a West final rematch, then beat Philadelphia for the Cup.
It’s fair to say the parade engines started firing that night in March.
These days – actually, even in those days – rivalries can be watered-down by the fact players on opposing teams are often tee-off partners at each other’s charity golf tournaments.
But in the case of Detroit and Colorado, there were no split loyalties or conflicted emotions.
“There was so many Stanley Cups in both those dressing rooms now looking back and there was just genuine, genuine hatred,” said Shanahan, sounding like he still might relish another shot at a Mountain Man nearly 15 years later. “There were no guys meeting up for a beer the night before or winking hello to a guy during warmup.
“There were players on the Colorado team I had played with before and I just grew to hate them and they felt the same way, I’m sure.”
While the game was obviously galvanizing for Detroit, Shanahan felt it did more to damage Colorado’s psyche than inflate the Wings’ collective cojones.
“We were a tight group already, but I think it did more to destroy Colorado’s mental grip or their confidence than necessarily unifying us,” he said. “We were unified. But what it did was, Colorado truly believed they were tougher and better than us, and then after that night where not only did we really sort of beat them up, but then we came back from down in the third and scored two goals to tie it and then won in overtime.”
Little wonder something that dramatic carried over to the second season.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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