On most nights, in most NHL seasons, the game is an entertaining form of chaos, encased in glass and barely controlled. The attraction lies in the furious barrage of bodies, the frenetic lash of the puck and the seemingly disjointed action that occasionally results in a fluke goal that helps define one franchise and destroy another.
Coaches and commentators may talk as if they are watching Stratego on ice, but for many fans the game still seems about as neat and orderly as Dennis Rodman's Day Planner. Even in the playoffs the teams often resemble two club fighters, closing their eyes and slugging away, hoping to slip in a lucky knockout punch. The line between champions and also-rans becomes as thin as the blade on a skate, and the fans know better than to blink. With the right sequence of breaks and bounces, they could see a team make history, as the New York Rangers did last season. You just don't know. On most nights, in most seasons, anyone can win, any crazy thing can happen.
Then again, if you haven't seen the Detroit Red Wings lately, you should be warned: This isn't most NHL seasons. This is, in fact, one of those occasions when a team is so vastly superior to its opponents that it brings a startling order to the usual mayhem on the ice. Even the most hockey-illiterate airhead could have skate-boarded into the San Jose Arena last week and seen that the team in red was the best in hockey. The Wings are scary good. "We roll out four great lines and six top defensemen," says Detroit goalie Mike Vernon, "and we never let up."
In the first two rounds of the Western Conference playoffs, the Red Wings took a scalpel and removed all suspense from the proceedings. They pummeled the Dallas Stars in five games in the opening round and then swept the San Jose Sharks in a series that made the America's Cup look like a photo finish. When the Rangers won last year for the first time since 1940. Detroit inherited the dread designation as the team that has gone the longest without winning the chalice. The Wings haven't won the Cup since '55 and haven't even been in the finals since '66, but so far their title run in '95 lacks the emotion and hype of the Rangers' drive to the championship. It's Detroit's own fault, of course. The Red Wings arc more like the Pittsburgh Penguins of the early 1990s and the Edmonton Oilers before that, steamrollering anyone between them and the Cup, leaving nothing to chance.
"Those Penguins were so competitive that they didn't care whom they played—they knew they could win," says Detroit assistant coach Barn Smith, who was on the Pittsburgh staff when the Penguins won 11 straight playoff games in 1992. "This team is the same way. It's rising to that same level."
The Sharks knocked off the favored Wings in the first round last season, and Detroit last week exacted awesome revenge. It outshot San Jose 147-61 in the four games and rang up scores that might have been lifted from a bad tennis match: 6-0, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2. The Wings were so efficient in eliminating the Sharks that you expected them to wipe away their fingerprints before leaving the scene.
They outhit, outskated, outpassed and outhustled San Jose. Other than that, it could have gone either way. When the Sharks got really desperate in Game 3, their captain, Jeff Odgers, picked a fight with Detroit enforcer Stu Grimson in the third period. Grimson decked Odgers with a right hook to the face. "I find it hard to believe the Calgary Flames lost to that team," says Vernon, referring to the Sharks' surprising 4-3 series win over Calgary in the first round. "We just dominated the Sharks. We played better than we have all year, and we've been pretty good all year."
After winning the first two games in Detroit, the Wings wore their old-time red uniforms into the Sharks' Silicon Valley theme park and beat the teal out of the home team. Gordie Howe would have taken an eye out of that big silly Shark's head through which the home team makes its entry before each game. It's a good thing San Jose had a guy with a snowboard jumping on a trampoline at center ice between periods of Game 4. Otherwise, their crazy fans would have had no one to cheer for. When the series mercifully ended, without San Jose ever leading in a game, the crowd stood and applauded—perhaps out of relief that the mighty twister was leaving town. "That is the best team I've seen in a long time," says San Jose center Craig Janney. "I would be shocked if they didn't win it all."
Over in the visitors' dressing room the Red Wings couldn't argue. This is their year, their big chance, and they know it. Nothing but the Stanley Cup will do. The Wings won the President's Trophy for having the NHL's best regular-season record (33-11-4), giving them home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. They have last season's MVP in Sergei Fedorov and this season's favorite for the Norris Trophy, as the league's best defenseman, in Paul Coffey. Seven-time All-Star Steve Yzerman is still around, but you might miss him. At times he plays with Detroit's checking line. He sprained his right knee in Game 4 against the Sharks, but he was hoping to recover by the end of the conference finals, which open Thursday, against the Chicago Blackhawks. Did we mention the coach? Some guy named Scotty Bowman. Has only won six Stanley Cups, 913 regular-season games and 149 playoff games. "There were weaknesses in the Red Wings' game last season, but this year I can't find any," says San Jose goaltender Arturs Irbe.
Bowman gathered the Red Wings at the start of the season, told them what to do and then adopted a hands-off approach. Any minor discipline problems were handled inside the dressing room. "We don't really have rules concerning staying out late and things like that," says Smith. "The players take care of everything themselves. That's how committed they are." Bowman was so worried about his team the day before Game 4 Saturday in San Jose that he took two of his sons for a drive down to Monterey. "To me, he is what a coach is supposed to be," says Coffey. "He told us the system he wants. Now we either play it, or we don't."