The Wing Dynasty
Well it happened again. For the fourth consecutive year, the Stanley Cup Finals ended in a sweep and for the second consecutive year, it was the Detroit Red Wings who made mincemeat of their Finals opponent. The Wings dismantled the Washington Capitals in four straight, dominating in almost every aspect of the game. Goaltender Chris Osgood, who took a back seat to Mike Vernon in the '97 Finals, won all 16 games for Detroit and despite giving up the occasional soft goal, remained tough and kept his team in the game while the Wing forwards did their thing to often frazzled opposing defenses.
Captain and fan-favorite Steve Yzerman led all playoff scorers with 24 points and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy (MVP) for his efforts. After returning from a 59-game hiatus due to a contract squabble, Sergei Fedorov returned in top form, playing his usual two-way style. The Wings almost lost Fedorov to Carolina during the season, but opted to match the Hurricane's offer, which would give Fedorov a $14 million signing bonus and an extra $12 million for reaching the Conference Finals. Add in the meager $2 million base salary, and Fedorov had a total of $28 million to show for his 43 games played ($651,163 per game, for those counting).
Yzerman, Fedorov and defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom were expected to be atop the playoff scoring leaders, but it was the Red Wings' depth that lifted them to the title. Second tier players Tomas Holmstrom, Martin Lapointe and Doug Brown all consistently outplayed most of the other teams marquee forwards, each one becoming strict believers in head coach Scotty Bowman's defensive system. And why shouldn't they believe? With this cup, Bowman tied his mentor Toe Blake's all-time mark with his eighth Stanley Cup championship.
Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig threw his hat in the ring as one of the elite goalies, tying the record for single-season playoff shutouts with four. Though overwhelmed in the finals, the Caps had an impressive run through the Eastern Conference playoffs, led by a solid group of veterans with Adam Oates, Peter Bondra, Dale Hunter and Brian Bellows, all in search of their first title. But they all rode the shoulders of Kolzig, who outplayed the world's greatest goalie Dominik Hasek in the Eastern Conference Finals to win the right to play Detroit.
Hasek was immense again in the 1997-98 season for the Buffalo Sabres, capturing the Hart and Vezina Trophies for the second straight year. The Sabres got off to a rocky start amidst internal turmoil surrounding the firing of last season's coach of the year Ted Nolan. Behind Hasek however, the team turned the season around, posting a 21-10-10 record in the second half of the season and continuing that success through the playoffs.
Though a hit as always at the ticket gate, hockey fell on tough times in 1997-98 in terms of TV ratings, possibly due to a noticable lack of scoring. While the league boasted 21 100-point scorers just five years ago, only one (Jaromir Jagr) broke the plateau this season. Trap defenses and the “clutching and grabbing” that fueled Mario Lemieux's decision to retire continued to limit offenses.
Injuries, concussions in particular, to some of league's top offensive players also kept even the most powerful teams to under three goals per game. The Rangers' Pat LaFontaine and Anaheim's Paul Kariya were each felled by concussions during the year, Kariya's thanks to a vicious and controversial hit by Chicago defenseman and Anaheim's new public enemy No. 1 Gary Suter. The lack of offense has sparked numerous NHL rule changes beginning in the 1998-99 season, including one that moves nets further away from the end boards in order to enable offenses more room to operate.
The biggest surprises this season, aside from the Capitals, were the Boston Bruins, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings. The worst three teams in the NHL a year ago all earned playoff berths this year. Although they were ousted in the first round of the playoffs, each team has developed a formidable nucleus of talent and are now considered three teams with the power to stop the Red Wing's streak at two.