Detroit's defense starts in the offensive zone. At the beginning of last season Bowman and associate coach Barry Smith installed a conservative forechecking system that keeps the left wing near the blue line; players have now had another season to practice it and distance themselves from the ineffectual D played by the old shoot-'em-up Wings. In Game 1 against Winnipeg, Detroit limited the Jets to 14 shots, including just three in the final period. In Game 2 the Wings held Winnipeg to 16 shots, none in a 17-minute span in the second and third periods. "This team hadn't been built around defense until Scotty got here," Yzerman says. "Now we're trying to generate scoring chances off our defense."
That defense is backed up by Chris Osgood, who has emerged as a top-notch goal-tender. Last season, Detroit's goaltending rose and fell with Mike Vernon, who crashed against New Jersey. Bowman refused to turn to Osgood, then 22, even when the Wings were trailing 3-0 in that series, because he felt Osgood was too inexperienced. Now Osgood appears ready, though even with his playoff goatee, he still looks like a refugee from the side of a Gerber's jar. After a season in which he tied for first in the NHL in goals-against average (2.17) and led the league with 39 wins, he is No. 1 in Detroit. Or so it seems. Osgood started the two home games last week, but the Wings switched to the 33-year-old Vernon for Game 3 because they thought he might be more at ease with the rabid Winnipeg crowd. So much for the virtues of old age.
Osgood and Vernon are fast friends and have smothered any incipient controversy. Osgood started Game 1 nervously, banking what was supposed to be a fake clearing pass off a Jet and almost into his own net, but he settled down and reacted to the puck well. " Osgood's handling the puck better this year," Bowman says, "and he's getting a good book on the shooters. He's not all reflex anymore. He knows now that this guy might like to go high or this guy might like to shoot in traffic."
The Red Wings final advantage is that Bowman is the best game coach alive. Example: With Detroit trailing 1-0 in the third period of Game 1 against Winnipeg, Bowman, the NHL's winningest coach (1,129 total career victories), showed his flair for the unexpected. Eighteen seconds remained in a Red Wings power play and a face-off was about to take place in the Winnipeg zone, but Bowman sent out his checking line and defensive defensemen Mike Ramsey and Bob Rouse. "It was a little surprising," Ramsey said after the game, "but sometimes you want to throw a different look out there. You knew if the puck came to us on the point, all we were going to do was hammer it at the net." Nineteen seconds later Draper scored on a rebound of Ramsey's shot to tie the game. "Maybe it was a little hunch," Ramsey says. "That's what makes Scotty who he is."
Bowman isn't easy to read. His ruminations on hockey can't even be described as stream of consciousness, because you can at least paddle down a stream; Bowman's mind portages a lot. He walks around the Wings video room in his slippers. He can be abrupt. But as impersonal as Bowman may be in his dealings with players, no coach ever has been as sensitive to what might work at any given moment on the ice. With a team as flexible as these Wings, Bowman's advantage becomes commanding.
"He did an interview on Fox during the All-Star Game that was an eye-opener for me," Taylor says. "I only know him as coach of the Red Wings. But there he was, talking about personal stuff. For the first time I was looking at him on a human level. He is just so intimidating, not because of how he acts but because of what he's accomplished. I think the refs and linesmen feel that, too. Maybe we've got a break once in a while because we have Scotty back there."
The Red Wings aren't perfect. The forwards, other than Primeau and McCarty, are mostly bite-sized, which was a drawback against the big, strong Devils last year. Detroit also has no messianic leader to rally around if it should stumble. However, these Red Wings know how to get things done, know what buttons to push. Three weeks ago, in fact, Fetisov pushed the buttons on a locker room phone and immediately got through to Boris Yeltsin's chief aide in Moscow.
" Yeltsin has our number," Fetisov says.
Mr. President, as is the custom here, you are welcome to dial it right after the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup.