The drought is finally over. The Detroit Red Wings, who last won the Stanley Cup back in the days of Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay in 1955, have brought the title back to Motown, dominating the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals in four games. Head coach Scotty Bowman secured his position as one of the top coaches in NHL history, winning his seventh Stanley Cup with his third team. Detroit's defense, backboned by Conn Smythe winning goaltender Mike Vernon, smothered the Flyers' high powered "Legion of Doom" line, giving up a stingy 1.78 goals per game.
Unfortunately, the victory turned bittersweet and the game was put into perspective when a limousine carrying Red Wings' defensemen Vladimir Konstantinov and Slava Fetisov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov crashed into a tree following a team dinner.
At the beginning of the season, still fresh off their loss to Colorado in the Western Conference Finals, the Red Wings brass went after some much needed size, grit and scoring punch in front of the net. And they went for the best, acquiring left wing Brendan Shanahan from the Hartford Whalers. Shanahan met all expectations, notching 47 regular season goals, leading the team in playoff scoring with nine goals-three in the finals, and playing an instrumental role in the Wings' victories over the Flyers and the now dreaded Avalanche.
The Wings-Avalanche matchup has now become one of the hottest rivalries in the NHL, stemming from the Avalanche's Claude Lemieux's vicious hit from behind on Detroit's Kris Draper in the 1996 playoffs. On March 26, 1997, Lemieux's return to Detroit for the first time since the hit, the Wing's sought revenge. What ensued was 39 penalties for 148 minutes, 18 fighting majors and two game misconducts. Detroit winger Darren McCarty battered Lemieux, goalies Mike Vernon and Patrick Roy squared off at center ice and… oh yeah, Detroit won 6-5 in overtime on a goal scored by McCarty.
Speaking of goal scoring, the NHL lost its all-time greatest in 1997 (on a per-game-basis). Mario Lemieux, who fought through chronic back pain and Hodgkin's Disease to become one of the NHL's best players in history, decided to call it quits after twelve years. Not one to go out with a whimper, the "Magnificent One" scored 50 goals and 122 points, good for the sixth scoring title of his illustrious career. Appropriately, the Hockey Hall of Fame voted to waive the usual three-year waiting period and put him where he belongs, among the league's greats.
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