This is a glorious time to be young and a Red Wing. Things are so sublime in Detroit, so ludicrously perfect, that the surprise last week wasn't that baby-faced Chris Osgood became only the third NHL goaltender to score a goal but that he didn't pick the top corner with his shot from 180 feet.
The Red Wings are the Chicago Bulls of the NHL, a team for the ages, on track to break the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens' record of 60 victories. (Yeah, so?) Through Sunday, with 16 regular-season games left, the Wings already had a team-record 50 wins. (You said the key words: regular season.) They had allowed 13 fewer goals than any other NHL team. (Are you quite finished?) During this dream season, captain Steve Yzerman has scored his 500th career goal, prolific defenseman Paul Coffey has gotten his 1,000th assist, and Scott Bowman has broken the record for games coached. (That and 16 playoff victories will get you a Stanley Cup.)
O.K., so the Red Wings also lead the league in doubters. " Detroit is a team people like to pick on," Osgood says. "I guess it's because we've been so successful the past three years."
Make that five years. The Red Wings have accumulated the most regular-season points (475) of any NHL team during that span, 23 more than the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the regular season counts on your permanent record about as much as your fifth-grade math marks. Come June, the Red Wings either will swig champagne from Lord Stanley's chalice or gargle Listerine, because if they don't win the Cup, the bad taste of 1996 might linger forever. Detroit hasn't won the Stanley Cup in 41 years, the longest dry spell of any team in the NHL, and while most of those years it lost on merit, the past few seasons have been a pitiful waste of talent and octopi. The Red Wings should have won last year, when, Yzerman says, they played even better than they have this season, but the New Jersey Devils swept them in the Cup finals. "That's kept our feet on the ground throughout the year," says Yzerman, who at week's end had scored at least one point in 15 straight games. "That was a pretty humbling experience. We went from heroes to goats really quick."
So all this—the wins, the milestones, Osgood's empty-netter—is nothing but eye candy, a joy to watch as destiny's doormats mark time until the playoffs. Of course, the 6�-month prologue to the real Red Wings season is not without significance. There are omens that this, mercifully, is the Year. Detroit has won 32 games by one or two goals, an unmistakable sign that it has the poise and patience to handle the pressures of postseason. The 2.21 goals-against average, tops in the league, whispers that the Red Wings have muffled their run-and-gun instincts and finally are committed to playing defense. They have so much depth and skill that they probably would be working on their parade route instead of their breakouts if not for the calamity that ended last season. Detroit rarely breached the offensive zone in the Cup finals against the Devils, a team that was nine pounds heavier per man at forward. Some Eastern Conference behemoth will again await in this year's finals. Can the Red Wings afford to tamper with their record-setting team before the March 20 trading deadline? Can they afford not to? "We're less likely rather than more likely to do something," says Bowman, who can speak in concentric circles.
The Red Wings are no bigger this season, but they are smarter. Their GAA has gone down and their IQ has gone up, and both have at least something to do with center Igor Larionov, 35, a reserved, professorial man who, in his wire-framed glasses, looks as if he should be teaching comparative lit at Michigan State. He began his career as the Wayne Gretzky of Russia and is winding it down as the unassuming hub of a latter-day Big Red Machine.
When Detroit traded former 50-goal winger Ray Sheppard to the San Jose Sharks for Larionov on Oct. 24, the move seemed quixotic even for a baffling genius like Bowman. With Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Keith Primeau and prized 25-year-old Greg Johnson, the last thing the Red Wings needed was another center. But Bowman, as always, had a plan. "The phone rang at 7:30 in the morning in San Jose," Larionov says, "and Scotty was asking me how I'd like to play on an all-Russian unit. It was some wake-up call."
Detroit's five-man Russian unit is the first in NHL history, and it has reunited Larionov with four old friends and teammates. He played with defenseman Slava Fetisov for eight years on the Central Red Army and Soviet national teams. Defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov and the mercurial Fedorov, who shifted to right wing for the first 3� months after Larionov's arrival in Detroit, also were among his Red Army teammates, back when they were babies. Leftwinger Slava Kozlov was literally a baby when Larionov first encountered him. At the time, Larionov was playing for a Russian team coached by Slava's father. "I don't remember Slava much," Larionov says. "There were a lot of five-year-olds hanging around the rink, begging for sticks. He was one of them."
The Red Wings, 4-3-2 when they obtained Larionov, took flight as soon as he arrived. Kozlov, who had one goal before the trade, scored 23 in his next 39 games and at week's end his 32 goals were second on the team to Yzerman's 34. The Russians have formed a subset, red wings on the Red Wings, not simply because of language or culture but because their sense of hockey's geometry is so markedly different than the linear North American concept. Their game is almost circular. Sometimes they pass to open spaces instead of players. They double back. Larionov can delay and delay and delay some more and then hit a streaking winger, giving Kozlov and Fedorov the puck in position to score goals. Bowman, a compulsive line juggler, frequently splits up the Russian unit, but it still gets plenty of ice time, especially in four-on-four situations.
Along with good wheels, a sharp mind and 18 years of pro experience, Larionov brought a soccer ball to Detroit. He started a pregame drill in which players, before they suit up, try to keep the ball in the air without using their hands, something he had done at previous NHL stops in Vancouver and San Jose. At first only some of the Europeans played, but soon North Americans like Yzerman and Darren McCarty gravitated to Larionov's warmup. Now two hours before the opening face-off as many as half the Wings might be involved in a soccer version of monkey-in-the-middle. Not that the games are trouble-free. Stu (the Grim Reaper) Grimson knocked out a couple of ceiling tiles in the dressing rooms at Florida and Tampa Bay. "Our enforcer," Larionov says. "More strength." The new rule: Future broken tiles cost the offender $100 a pop.