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 1997 Playoff Review

  They've Been There, Want to Go Back
By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 1998; Page C03

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DETROIT — The Clarence Campbell Trophy was propped up on a table in the Detroit Red Wings locker room, but no one seemed very interested in the prize for winning the NHL's Western Conference finals. When you are the defending Stanley Cup champions and the team from the title run is mostly intact, little is made of lesser achievements.

So there was little celebrating among Detroit players after they eliminated the Dallas Stars by a 2-0 score in Game 6 of the Western finals last Friday night.

The celebration was limited to captain Steve Yzerman, who has played all of his 15 NHL seasons in Detroit, skating two-thirds of the rink to accept the silver bowl mounted on a wooden base. The raucous home crowd, dressed mostly in red or white, chanted "Stee-vee." No parade, victory lap or other such accoutrements.

"We know what it feels like in this room to win the Cup and we want to get back there," said defenseman Bob Rouse, who played for the Capitals for parts of three seasons from 1989 to '91. "We haven't really accomplished everything we set out to do yet. Most of the guys in the room realize that. ...

"Last year we had a lot of pressure to win it, especially because of the success the prior two years. The motivation was that this team had never won in 52 years [since 1955] and we kept hearing it. Now, it's 'Can we win it again?'"

The Red Wings are probably the most talented team in the league, with superstars such as Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, and other top-notch players such as Brendan Shanahan, Slava Kozlov, Igor Larionov, Larry Murphy (who played in Washington from 1983 to '89) and Nicklas Lidstrom. They are experienced, with 14 key players returning from last season's team.

"I think it's very different in the fact this team has the experience from last year," Shanahan said. "Our team is confident, but we're also experienced enough not to be overconfident. ... When you win the Cup, it doesn't lead to complacency. When you get a taste of that sweet victory, it makes you want to get there again. ...

"That's a feeling that sticks with you forever. When you get there, it makes you realize that it's all worth it. Playing hockey in June isn't an ideal thought for most players. But when the reward is the Stanley Cup, it's all worth it."

There are plenty of reasons for the Red Wings to be confident. They won both of their regular season games with the Capitals and have cruised through the playoffs despite not playing to their potential. They have needed six games to defeat each of their three postseason opponents, but have not faced elimination since the 1996 playoffs.

One reason for Detroit's success this postseason has been its firepower. The Red Wings, who ranked second in the league in scoring during the regular season (3.0 goals per game) despite having no player with more than 28 goals, are far and away the leaders in the postseason. They are averaging more than 3.5 goals and have the top three point-scorers, led by Yzerman's four goals and 16 assists. Fedorov's nine goals are a postseason high and Lidstrom's 15 points are the most by a defenseman.

What makes the Red Wings' success somewhat startling is that Fedorov and Shanahan have struggled recently. Fedorov had gone seven games without a goal until the second period of the clinching 2-0 victory over Dallas. Shanahan, who had a team-leading 28 goals in the regular season, is in an even bigger slump with no goals in the past eight games.

"Players can be shut down in this league," Detroit Coach Scotty Bowman said. "That makes it tough when you don't know where the production is coming from."

But the Red Wings have had no problem finding other players to come through.

Left wings Kozlov and Tomas Holmstrom have combined for 11 goals and 13 assists. Martin Lapointe, who had 15 goals in 75 regular season games, has seven in 16 playoff games.

"It doesn't matter who scores, it just seems somehow they get goals from somewhere," said Dallas right wing Mike Keane, who won the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1993 and the Colorado Avalanche in 1996. "They have a very strong skating club. They have all-around team speed; Fedorov really likes to wind it up. You have to make them dump it in and do things they don't like to do."

Not that that's easy. In the last game against Dallas, both of Detroit's goals came on the rush. The first was short-handed by Murphy, who quickly joined the play on a line change and finished a 2-on-1 by taking a pass from Darren McCarty and scoring. It was Detroit's fifth short-handed goal of the playoffs. Fedorov's goal came after he gained the blueline easily, then fired a wrist shot from the slot that squeezed past Dallas goaltender Ed Belfour.

"Detroit is a real good team on taking advantage of mistakes," Dallas Coach Ken Hitchcock said. "It seems when you have a skilled team that the deflections end up going the right way and the bouncing pucks end up going the right way."

Defensively, the Red Wings have limited opponents' scoring chances. Goaltender Chris Osgood has been sensational at times (26 saves in the Game 6 shutout of Dallas) and ordinary at others, allowing three goals on shots from outside the blueline. Osgood's ability has been questioned by the media and opponents — Belfour called him "lucky." But Osgood is confident.

"I've given up two goals from the redline," he said. "Who cares?"

While Detroit had most of its team returning from last season, this season has been anything but routine. A shortened summer following last season's triumph began when defensemen Vladimir Konstantinov and Slava Fetisov were injured in a limousine accident following a golf outing. Fetisov's injuries were not serious, but Konstantinov was in a coma for five weeks and remains in a wheelchair, without much short-term memory. Then starting goaltender Mike Vernon was traded to the San Jose Sharks.

This season began with Fedorov, a restricted free agent, sitting out because he and the team could not agree on a new contract. In February, he signed an offer sheet with the Carolina Hurricanes that included a $13 million bonus should Fedorov's team advance to the conference finals. The Red Wings contested that clause, but their objection was denied by NHL officials, so they matched the offer sheet and had Fedorov in uniform for the final two months of the season.

Also, several players participated in the Olympics, lengthening their seasons by an additional two weeks.

"Steve [Yzerman] and I were talking about it the other day; we feel like we've been playing hockey for two years straight," Shanahan said. "With last year's run, the short summer, the Olympics — you don't get a break all season long. But there's only one way to finish a long season, and that's with a win."

If they can do that, the Red Wings would become the first team to successfully defend its title since the Pittsburgh Penguins won championships in 1991 and '92. That led one reporter to ask Yzerman whether Detroit had attained dynasty status.

"I don't even want to get into that right now," he said. "We've been one of the top teams the last few years, but when I think of dynasties I think of the Oilers, the Islanders in the early '80s and the Canadiens in the mid-'70s. We're a very good team; we've proven that the last few years."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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