Coffey and Yzerman spoke to the team in the dressing room before each of the first two playoff series and reminded the players that the prize was still a long way off. "This is as good a dressing room as I've ever been in," says Coffey, who last week scored his 166th playoff point, breaking the career record for a defense-man. "And I've been in some good ones." Earlier, between games in Dallas, the Wings had gone to see the Detroit Tigers play the Texas Rangers. Red Wing defenseman Slava Fetisov, not a very patient baseball fan, lasted only a couple of innings before heading for the exit. "Two innings," he said, "enough for me."
Detroit had the talent last season but lacked two vital ingredients: a big-game goaltender and a system the players believed in. The goalie arrived a few days after coach Bowman added the job of player personnel director to his duties last June. Bowman sent defenseman Steve Chiasson to the Flames for Vernon, who owns a Stanley Cup ring from Calgary's title in 1989. Vernon went 19-6-4 with a 2.52 goals-against for Detroit this season, but more than that, he infused his teammates with a renewed confidence going into the postseason. All of sudden the guy under the goalie pads for the Wings had the talent and the nerve to match the skaters in front of him. "I think I took a lot of pressure off this team, from the front office on down," says Vernon. "I'm not saying I'm the answer, but I think I silenced some critics and took the pressure off a lot of people."
With a clutch man in net, Bowman figured he could sell a new defensive-oriented approach to his players, even to his many veteran stars. The proposition was simple: You can continue to put up gaudy offensive numbers, or you can take a genuine shot at winning the Cup. "There's no secret to it," says Coffey. "We're not playing gung ho, score-10-goals-a-game hockey. We're playing smart defensive hockey, and we're committed to winning. That's all there is to it."
The Red Wings somehow have firmed up their defense without sacrificing much of their vaunted firepower. They still look as if they huddle up before each rush and sketch a play on the ice. Every player has a job to do and a place to be. There is order in the hockey universe, and one team skates ahead of the rest. It may not be very suspenseful, but still it's something to see.