Steve Yzerman WAS
NOT IN THE HOUSE, BUT HE SOON WILL BE. The Captain, it turns out, is closing on
a summer place in the cottage country a few hours north of Toronto that once
belonged to legendary Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe. He has the man's trophy,
he might as well have his old digs.
There may never
have been a more popular Conn Smythe Trophy winner than Yzerman, not only
because of what he did in these playoffs--he led all scorers with 24 points and
was especially dynamic in the finals sweep of overmatched Washington--but also
because of who he is. Yzerman rarely made a false step this spring, not from
the aeons-ago first-round series against Phoenix to the heady moments when he
accepted the Stanley Cup and gingerly placed it on the lap of the
wheelchair-bound Vladimir Konstantinov. When Konstantinov held a single finger
aloft, Yzerman gently corrected him, "No, Vladi, two. Two."
Konstantinov held up a second finger.
Say this for
Yzerman: The Red Wings have a way of responding to him.
They go where he
takes them, especially to the front of the net, as they did in the opening
minute of Game 3 in Washington on June 13. Yzerman grabbed the puck and
scurried down the left wing, carrying Capitals center Esa Tikkanen on his back
for the last 30 feet the same way he has carried the Red Wings for the last 15
seasons. Whether it is the weight of a franchise or 200 pounds of fractious
Finn, Yzerman has never been afraid of heavy lifting. When Yzerman and his
chaperone landed in a heap and careered into Caps goalie Olaf Kolzig, the puck
bounced free and Tomas Holmstrom swooped in unattended to put it home, just 35
seconds into the game. That's Washington: first in war, first in peace, lousy
in the first minute.
This wasn't hockey
that Yzerman and his merry band were playing against Washington, it was an
elaborate game of keepaway. Every time the Capitals would come close, Detroit
would simply skip out of the way. Sometimes the teams would emphasize defense,
sometimes offense; but no matter which way the games flowed, the Red Wings
would come out a goal better--at least until Game 4, when Detroit tired of the
routine and hammered Washington 4-1 to dash any lingering illusions the
Capitals might have had of being competitive.
series, the Red Wings turned convention on its ear: You have to get better
goaltending to win a Cup. Well, Kolzig had been better, for the most part, than
Detroit's Chris Osgood. You have to score on the power play. The Wings didn't
until Game 4, when they finally exploded for three goals with the man
advantage. You just can't turn it on and off. Detroit did, like a spigot. You
need scoring from your big guns. Sergei Fedorov and Brendan Shanahan combined
for one goal (scored by Fedorov in Game 3).
But then, hasn't
Yzerman's entire career defied convention? He has received more acclaim as a
20-plus goal scorer than he did when he was a regular 50-goal scorer. Though
his production has tailed off, he was named to the Canadian Olympic team last
winter. When he was regarded as one of the flashiest NHL centermen, his
leadership was questioned. Though his game has lost many of its grace notes, he
is now considered one of hockey's great leaders.
Two Stanley Cups
will do that. The reflected glow from the Cup is soft and flattering, and
Yzerman, nicked and dented but still with a striking, boyish face, has never
looked better. The Wings' back-to-back championships have illuminated the one
facet of his game that 563 goals and six straight 100-point seasons never
could. "Funny how it works," Yzerman says. "I'm not a huge scorer
anymore"--his 155 points in 1988-89 are the most in an NHL season by anyone
not named Gretzky or Lemieux--"but over the past couple of years I've
become the player that I should have been all along. More of a defensive player
than an offensive player."
This conceit is as
remarkable as the Beatles' announcing they mildly regret having done all that
gold-record, I Wanna Hold Your Hand stuff rather than heading straight to Sgt.
Pepper; but defense has been the foundation of Yzerman's game since 1994-95.
Before that season Detroit coach Scotty Bowman talked to him about the
evolution of Montreal Canadiens star Jacques Lemaire in the 1970s and
Pittsburgh Penguins standout Ron Francis in the 1990s--offensive centers who,
because of the wealth of firepower on their teams, tailored their games to a
more defensive style. The one-way Red Wings, Bowman said, had to change. With
Fedorov's emergence as a scorer and with the acquisition of center Igor
Larionov, a strong, sage locker room voice to complement Yzerman's, Detroit no
longer needed its captain to fill the net every night.
Washington, Yzerman took off. He set up the winning goal in the 2-1 victory in
Game 1; scored twice (once shorthanded) in the 5-4 overtime win in Game 2; and
created the goal that took the Capitals and the home crowd out of the match
early in Game 3, a 2-1 Detroit victory. During the series he played 90 minutes,
a team-high among forwards, and won close to two thirds of his face-offs. In an
era that supposedly belongs to big young forwards like Peter Forsberg, Jaromir
Jagr and Eric Lindros, easily the best player in the '98 playoffs was a
5'11" 185-pounder who is not conspicuously strong, stopwatch fast or, at