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The 1990s were an unforgettable era for the Detroit Red Wings and their fan base, both of which were starving for a championship after having gone a total of 42 years without one. Not only did the 90's feature two straight Stanley Cup victories, but they were proceeded by a series of painful postseason disappointments that brought into question whether or not the franchise could ever ultimately get it done again. But as the classic Aerosmith tune opined, “Sometimes you have to lose to know how to win.”
1997 Stanley Cup Champions
While the Red Wings would finish the 1996-97 season with a winning record, their 38 wins were nowhere near their then-record-setting mark of 62 victories the previous year. But as we're seeing this season with the Florida Panthers, a change in play and team personnel is sometimes needed to produce long-term results.
Detroit began the season with a significant trade that saw future Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey and former 1st round draft pick Keith Primeau traded to the Hartford Whalers in exchange for power forward Brendan Shanahan, signaling a new direction for the team. Arriving literally just in time for the pre-game skate at Joe Louis Arena prior to their home opener, Shanahan immediately began making an impact with a fight in his first shift as a Red Wing. He would go on to become their leading goal scorer with a total of 47.
Detroit's season would also later be defined by the infamous “Fight Night at the Joe” on March 26, 1997, against the hated Colorado Avalanche. Gritty forward Darren McCarty would forever become a Hockeytown hero for his pounding of villain Claude Lemieux and later scoring the overtime-winning goal in the same game.
As the third seed in the Western Conference, Detroit would earn playoff series victories over the St. Louis Blues and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim before once again facing the Avalanche in the Conference Final. By the time it was said and done, Detroit would emerge victorious over the Avs and advance to the 1997 Stanley Cup Final to face the Philadelphia Flyers.
You can read our full recap of the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals right here.
Repeat as champions in 1998
The Red Wings had to begin their Stanley Cup defense the following season without three extremely crucial components of their lineup from the previous season, defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov and forward Sergei Fedorov. Konstantinov was nearly killed and suffered life-altering injuries along with team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov a mere six days following the 1997 Cup win in a limousine accident. Veteran defenseman Slava Fetisov was also in the vehicle, but escaped serious injury and was able to begin the season with the rest of his teammates.
Meanwhile, Fedorov was holding out of the lineup due to a contract dispute, and would even sign a mammoth offer sheet from the Carolina Hurricanes that Detroit would reluctantly match. The Hurricanes at the time were owned by bitter Mike Ilitch business rival Peter Karmanos of Compuware, and many saw the offer sheet as a specific act of spite on the part of Karmanos against Ilitch.
What's more, goaltender Mike Vernon, who won the 1997 Conn Smythe Trophy, was traded to the San Jose Sharks. This meant that the starter's role now officially belonged to Chris Osgood.
Fedorov would eventually re-join the Red Wings in February of that season. While it took a while for the fans to warm up to him again, he would soon have them back on their feet and cheering at Joe Louis Arena when he scored twice against Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy. Coincidently, Roy would lose his second fight in as many years to a Red Wings goaltender, as he was taken down by Osgood in what would be another classic Detroit-Colorado fight.
The Red Wings overcame a 2-1 series deficit in Round 1 of the 1998 postseason against the upstart Phoenix Coyotes, winning three straight to advance and once again face the Blues, whom they'd dispatch in six games. This set up a Western Conference showdown against the Dallas Stars, who won the President's Trophy as the NHL's best regular season team. Four victories later and the Red Wings were once again in the Stanley Cup Finals, this time against the Washington Capitals.
Detroit jumped out to the series lead with a 2-1 win in Game 1, but it was the wild back-and-forth Game 2 that was the defining contest.
Washington was able to erase a 1-0 Detroit lead with three straight 2nd period goals, taking a 3-1 advantage into the 3rd period. Both teams would trade early goals, and it appeared as though Washington would be able to tie the series at 1-1 when Finnish forward Esa Tikkanen broke in alone on Osgood and deked him out of position. But instead of giving his team a 5-3 lead, Tikkanen missed the wide-open net. This set the stage for Doug Brown to send Joe Louis Arena into a frenzy with the game-tying goal late in the 3rd, and the contest would be capped by Kris Draper scoring his first and only goal of the playoffs in overtime:
The Red Wings would follow this up with an early goal in Game 3 at Washington's then-named MCI Center courtesy of Tomas Holmstrom, and would later get the game-winning goal late in the third period from Fedorov, setting the stage for a potential sweep.
Detroit's second straight Stanley Cup victory would soon be theirs, and few images in NHL history were more emotional than seeing the team celebrate on the ice with their wheelchair-bound teammate Konstantinov afterward.
Wrapping It Up – The 1990s were unforgettable for Detroit Red Wings fans
While the Red Wings were unable to win a third straight Stanley Cup in 1999, the memories and moments that they provided their massive fan base not only in the state of Michigan and around the country but worldwide would last a lifetime.
The 1990s truly were an unforgettable era in Red Wings' history, and we're glad we got to experience it.