This is a glorious time to be young and a Red Wing. Things are
so sublime in Detroit, so ludicrously perfect, that the surprise
last week wasn't that baby-faced Chris Osgood became only the
third NHL goaltender to score a goal but that he didn't pick the
top corner with his shot from 180 feet.
The Red Wings are the Chicago Bulls of the NHL, a team for the
ages, on track to break the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens' record
of 60 victories. (Yeah, so?) Through Sunday, with 16
regular-season games left, the Wings already had a team-record
50 wins. (You said the key words: regular season.) They had
allowed 13 fewer goals than any other NHL team. (Are you quite
finished?) During this dream season, captain Steve Yzerman has
scored his 500th career goal, prolific defenseman Paul Coffey
has gotten his 1,000th assist, and Scott Bowman has broken the
record for games coached. (That and 16 playoff victories will
get you a Stanley Cup.)
O.K., so the Red Wings also lead the league in doubters.
"Detroit is a team people like to pick on," Osgood says. "I
guess it's because we've been so successful the past three years."
Make that five years. The Red Wings have accumulated the most
regular-season points (475) of any NHL team during that span, 23
more than the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the regular season counts
on your permanent record about as much as your fifth-grade math
marks. Come June, the Red Wings either will swig champagne from
Lord Stanley's chalice or gargle Listerine, because if they
don't win the Cup, the bad taste of 1996 might linger forever.
Detroit hasn't won the Stanley Cup in 41 years, the longest dry
spell of any team in the NHL, and while most of those years it
lost on merit, the past few seasons have been a pitiful waste of
talent and octopi. The Red Wings should have won last year,
when, Yzerman says, they played even better than they have this
season, but the New Jersey Devils swept them in the Cup finals.
"That's kept our feet on the ground throughout the year," says
Yzerman, who at week's end had scored at least one point in 15
straight games. "That was a pretty humbling experience. We went
from heroes to goats really quick."
So all this--the wins, the milestones, Osgood's empty-netter--is
nothing but eye candy, a joy to watch as destiny's doormats mark
time until the playoffs. Of course, the 6 1/2-month prologue to
the real Red Wings season is not without significance. There are
omens that this, mercifully, is the Year. Detroit has won 32
games by one or two goals, an unmistakable sign that it has the
poise and patience to handle the pressures of postseason. The
2.21 goals-against average, tops in the league, whispers that
the Red Wings have muffled their run-and-gun instincts and
finally are committed to playing defense. They have so much
depth and skill that they probably would be working on their
parade route instead of their breakouts if not for the calamity
that ended last season. Detroit rarely breached the offensive
zone in the Cup finals against the Devils, a team that was nine
pounds heavier per man at forward. Some Eastern Conference
behemoth will again await in this year's finals. Can the Red
Wings afford to tamper with their record-setting team before the
March 20 trading deadline? Can they afford not to? "We're less
likely rather than more likely to do something," says Bowman,
who can speak in concentric circles.
The Red Wings are no bigger this season, but they are smarter.
Their GAA has gone down and their IQ has gone up, and both have
at least something to do with center Igor Larionov, 35, a
reserved, professorial man who, in his wire-framed glasses,
looks as if he should be teaching comparative lit at Michigan
State. He began his career as the Wayne Gretzky of Russia and is
winding it down as the unassuming hub of a latter-day Big Red
When Detroit traded former 50-goal winger Ray Sheppard to the
San Jose Sharks for Larionov on Oct. 24, the move seemed
quixotic even for a baffling genius like Bowman. With Yzerman,
Sergei Fedorov, Keith Primeau and prized 25-year-old Greg
Johnson, the last thing the Red Wings needed was another center.
But Bowman, as always, had a plan. "The phone rang at 7:30 in
the morning in San Jose," Larionov says, "and Scotty was asking
me how I'd like to play on an all-Russian unit. It was some
Detroit's five-man Russian unit is the first in NHL history, and
it has reunited Larionov with four old friends and teammates. He
played with defenseman Slava Fetisov for eight years on the
Central Red Army and Soviet national teams. Defenseman Vladimir
Konstantinov and the mercurial Fedorov, who shifted to right
wing for the first 3 1/2 months after Larionov's arrival in
Detroit, also were among his Red Army teammates, back when they
were babies. Leftwinger Slava Kozlov was literally a baby when
Larionov first encountered him. At the time, Larionov was
playing for a Russian team coached by Slava's father. "I don't
remember Slava much," Larionov says. "There were a lot of
five-year-olds hanging around the rink, begging for sticks. He
was one of them."
The Red Wings, 4-3-2 when they obtained Larionov, took flight as
soon as he arrived. Kozlov, who had one goal before the trade,
scored 23 in his next 39 games and at week's end his 32 goals
were second on the team to Yzerman's 34. The Russians have
formed a subset, red wings on the Red Wings, not simply because
of language or culture but because their sense of hockey's
geometry is so markedly different than the linear North American
concept. Their game is almost circular. Sometimes they pass to
open spaces instead of players. They double back. Larionov can
delay and delay and delay some more and then hit a streaking
winger, giving Kozlov and Fedorov the puck in position to score
goals. Bowman, a compulsive line juggler, frequently splits up
the Russian unit, but it still gets plenty of ice time,
especially in four-on-four situations.
Along with good wheels, a sharp mind and 18 years of pro
experience, Larionov brought a soccer ball to Detroit. He
started a pregame drill in which players, before they suit up,
try to keep the ball in the air without using their hands,
something he had done at previous NHL stops in Vancouver and San
Jose. At first only some of the Europeans played, but soon North
Americans like Yzerman and Darren McCarty gravitated to
Larionov's warmup. Now two hours before the opening face-off as
many as half the Wings might be involved in a soccer version of
monkey-in-the-middle. Not that the games are trouble-free. Stu
(the Grim Reaper) Grimson knocked out a couple of ceiling tiles
in the dressing rooms at Florida and Tampa Bay. "Our enforcer,"
Larionov says. "More strength." The new rule: Future broken
tiles cost the offender $100 a pop.
"This is as good a team as I've ever played for," Larionov says.
"We still have regular-season games and the playoffs, but there
is the same kind of atmosphere as on the Russian national
team--the feeling we can win every time we play. The difference
is, those teams won like machines, and this team is having fun."
The mirth was heightened by Osgood's goal in a 4-2 win at
Hartford, a looping shot that plopped down at the Whalers' blue
line and scooted in, dead center. You have to love those two-way
goalies, guys who can do it at both nets. Osgood, 23, was dubbed
"Sniper" at practice the next day, and co-owner Marian Ilitch
teased, "Do you have a goals clause in your contract?" Osgood
would have preferred to score at home, but he said, "I guess
that's being a little picky."
Osgood loves the Joe Louis Arena fans. The feeling is more than
mutual. Osgood has become their beloved Ozzie, and co-No. 1
goalie Mike Vernon has been reduced to the rooters' whipping
boy. Vernon, who returned from a groin injury to put together a
136-minute shutout streak last month, deserves better--through
Sunday he had a 2.35 goals-against average and a .902 save
percentage--but he remains in purgatory for the sin of being
ordinary in those four losses to the Devils. Osgood, meanwhile,
has been sensational. At week's end he was leading the NHL in
wins (33) and goals-against average (2.17), was tied for second
in shutouts (five) and had a .912 save percentage.
Yet goaltending lingers as Detroit's only question. The Wings
don't seem to have an Osgood clique and a Vernon clique; they
seem happy playing in front of either one. But no team has ever
won a Stanley Cup by rotating goaltenders. Someone always has
emerged--Billy Smith over Chico Resch for the New York Islanders,
Grant Fuhr over Andy Moog for the Edmonton Oilers--on the
championship teams that have been blessed with two good goalies.
Bowman will make a decision based on who's hot and on Detroit's
playoff opponents, but in his unconventional wisdom he might
keep things just as they are. Who knows? He has merely told the
goalies they will continue to rotate the rest of the regular
Vernon's turn came last Friday against the Colorado Avalanche,
the No. 2 team in the Western Conference. He was terrific in an
intense, emotional, playoff-style game, making 19 saves in a 4-2
win. "We played hard last year," Bowman said after the game,
"but we play harder this year." Osgood returned on Sunday in a
5-2 victory in Winnipeg.
"Detroit has so many elements, they can beat you so many ways,"
Avalanche right wing Mike Keane says. "They've got character,
players who want to battle you like [Dino] Ciccarelli, [Bob]
Errey, McCarty. They've got the Russians. They're playing great
defense. And you can see they have the will to win. Of course,
with all the pressure on them around the league and in their
city, they have to win."
Yes. The Red Wings win or they will be remembered as a team that
frittered away championships. But not even the most successful
regular-season team in history can win a Stanley Cup in March.
Right now all the Red Wings can do is have fun, win games and
burnish their already lustrous defense. And hope the sublime
doesn't end in the ridiculous.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY TIM DEFRISCO Them and Their Shadows Claude Lemieux of the Avalanche and Vyacheslav Kozlov of the Red Wings waged a spectral battle for the puck during another Detroit win (page 80). [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Grimson, the Red Wings' Grim Reaper, thinks it's time to put an end to the team's 41-year Stanley Cup drought. [Stu (the Grim Reaper) Grimson]COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO Kozlov and his comrades on the NHL's first all-Russian unit have knocked other teams off their feet. [Slava Kozlov tangled with opponent]