History Is Central Theme
In finishing second in the Central Division with 103 points this season, the Detroit Red Wings overcame the tragic accident that ended defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov’s career, the prolonged holdout of center Sergei Fedorov and the trade that sent Mike Vernon--the most valuable player in their Stanley Cup drive last spring--to San Jose.
Their next obstacle, however, might be their biggest yet: history.
No team has won consecutive Cups since Pittsburgh in 1991-92, and no team since then has made it to the finals in consecutive years. The Red Wings, hit by a flurry of late-season injuries, will be hard-pressed to win again, but their depth keeps them among the prime contenders.
It also helps that Coach Scotty Bowman, with his uncanny anticipation, put players with different linemates all season, preparing them for situations such as this. The Red Wings will open their first-round series against Phoenix today without feisty left wing Brendan Shanahan (back injury), center Kris Draper (sprained knee), left wing Brent Gilchrist (groin pull) and right wing Doug Brown (severe shoulder separation).
“We’ve always said for the last year that we’ve been fortunate to have guys that are just eager and willing to step in,” said Steve Yzerman, the Red Wings’ captain and leading scorer. “They have been able to play well and be effective. That’s been one of the big reasons for the success we’ve had.”
History is also the enemy of the Dallas Stars.
They won the Presidents’ Trophy with a league-leading 109 points, but only three of the previous 12 winners have won the Cup the same year: the 1987 Edmonton Oilers, the 1989 Calgary Flames and the 1994 New York Rangers. In addition, the Stars face a dangerous first opponent in the San Jose Sharks, who dominated them the last two seasons and bring to mind the Stars’ shocking first-round loss to Edmonton last spring.
“We all know the first round is going to be difficult for us,” Star Coach Ken Hitchcock said, “first of all because of who we’re playing, but also because of the psychological aspects of playing in the first round and trying to get by.”
Said Dallas center Mike Modano: “It will be nice to avenge last year. It left a bad taste in our mouths. There’s a lot more to prove because of last year.”
The New Jersey Devils had the best record in the Eastern Conference and the NHL’s best team goals-against average for the second successive season. After losing to the Rangers in the second round last spring, they’re intent on avoiding another early exit.
“It’s been a long season with the Olympics and everything,” said defenseman Scott Stevens, who played for Canada at Nagano. “So now it focuses on the most important thing.”
The East features two series involving teams that have never met in the playoffs before--Montreal vs. Pittsburgh and Ottawa vs. New Jersey--and one series involving teams that missed the playoffs last season--Washington and Boston. In the West, the Kings will make their first playoff appearance since their 1993 loss in the Cup finals, and the Sharks are back for the first time since 1994-95 for a first-ever matchup with Dallas.
All series are best-of-seven. Six of the eight series begin today. The Montreal-Pittsburgh and King-St. Louis series start Thursday.