Detroit Red Wings begin quest to end drought

In the spring of 1997 — a quarter-century ago — the Detroit Red Wings embarked on their quest to end a 42-year Stanley Cup drought.

The Free Press is celebrating and remembering the champs with our book: “Stanleytown: The Inside Story of How the Stanley Cup Returned to the Motor City After 41 Frustrating Seasons.”

Day 1: April 16, 1997

The backstory: For three weeks after the greatest night of hockey in the 18-year history of their building — Fight Night at The Joe — the Red Wings did little to buoy fans’ hopes that this would be the year the Stanley Cup finally returned to the Motor City. After that March 26 classic against the hated Colorado Avalanche, the Wings finished 3-3-3, scored only 18 goals in those nine games, hadn’t settled on Chris Osgood or Mike Vernon between the pipes, had abandoned the Russian Five as a unit and were playing their best two-way center, Sergei Fedorov, as a defenseman, leading him to declare heading into the playoffs: “It doesn’t matter whether I’m happy or not.” Detroit finished 38-26-18 with 94 points, a far cry from its 131 points from 1995-96. Still, they were the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference and heavy favorites against No. 6 St. Louis. “You’ll see a totally different team in the playoffs, for sure,” forward Martin Lapointe said.

The Blues finished one game over .500 and gave up more goals than they scored, despite future Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr.

Detroit Red Wings' Kris Draper tries to score but St. Louis Blues goalie Grant Fuhr dives to deflect it in Game 1 of the playoffs April 16, 1997 at Joe Louis Arena.

Match 1: It wasn’t déjà vu all over again — it was far worse. In the 1990s, the Wings annually seemed to run into a hot goalie at the start of the playoffs. That Fuhr stopped all 30 shots in a 2-0 victory at The Joe wasn’t a shock. The shock was the Wings failed on seven power plays, committed 10 penalties, many of them retaliatory, and couldn’t create scoring chances. “We need more traffic in front,” said Fedorov, still on defense, except when the Russian Five reunited for a late power play (and couldn’t produce a shot). “We didn’t play totally disciplined,” enforcer Joe Kocur said. “You can’t win a game like that,” coach Scotty Bowman said.

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