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Red Wings Get Clipped Again

Hockey: Avalanche earn first trip to finals by ousting record-breaking Detroit, 4-1.

May 30, 1996|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — With grim expressions on faces scarred by the ugly marks of playoff combat, the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday watched the Colorado Avalanche celebrate a triumph they expected would be theirs.

As the clock at McNichols Arena blinked off the final seconds of the 4-1 victory that gave the Avalanche the Western Conference title in a grueling six-game series, the Red Wings' record 62-victory season faded into oblivion. It will be small consolation to the Wings, whose Stanley Cup drought has stretched to 41 years despite compiling the NHL's best regular-season record for two consecutive seasons.

"The regular season almost becomes so meaningless," Detroit center Steve Yzerman said. "No matter how many games you win, you can almost take the season off. It's not necessarily about winning games during the regular season; it's about winning in the playoffs, and maybe we lost track of that a little bit."

Because the Avalanche never lost sight of that, it will make its first appearance in the Cup finals. As the Quebec Nordiques from 1979-95, they made two appearances in the semifinals; before joining the NHL, they won the Avco Cup in 1978 as champions of the World Hockey Assn.

The finals will open Tuesday at Denver against the winner of the Pittsburgh-Florida series, which the Penguins lead, 3-2. The Penguins can eliminate the Panthers tonight at Miami Arena.

To the delight of a pompom-waving crowd of 16,061, the Avalanche on Wednesday took the lead at 11:57 on the first of two goals by Joe Sakic, who is two goals short of the record of 19 in a playoff year set in 1976 by Philadelphia's Reggie Leach and matched in 1985 by Edmonton's Jari Kurri. The Red Wings pulled even on a deflected shot by Paul Coffey at 15:36, but Sakic, Mike Ricci and Peter Forsberg scored in the second period to overwhelm the battered Red Wings.

"I still think they're an unbelievable hockey club and I'm still amazed we beat them," Avalanche defenseman Uwe Krupp said. "The playoffs has its own rules. As much as Detroit dominated the regular season, the St. Louis [quarterfinal] series took a toll on them. The Blues gave them a battle. And they had some injuries. There was a game Yzerman missed [Game 2], and [Paul] Coffey [Games 2 and 3] and those are key players.

"You need breaks, you need good defense and you need good goaltending. Maybe the Detroit Red Wings had all that, but their timing was not as good as ours."

The Avalanche's timing was impeccable. While the Red Wings did little to add muscle up front or infuse youth into an aging defense, the Avalanche added goaltender Patrick Roy, defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh and wingers Claude Lemieux and Mike Keane. Roy, the most valuable player in the Montreal Canadiens' 1986 and 1993 Cup triumphs, hasn't lost two successive games this spring.

"That's something that we've done all year, bounce back after a loss," said Roy, whose 132nd playoff appearance tied Bill Smith's career record.

Said Ricci: "We beat a great hockey team. We didn't sneak in the back door. We did it the hard way."

Lemieux made it harder on them by taking a five-minute major penalty (with the accompanying game misconduct) for checking Detroit forward Kris Draper from behind at 14:07 of the first period. Coffey scored during that power play, but that was the only goal Detroit could manufacture.

The hit sent Draper face-first into the boards, leaving him with a gruesome assortment of injuries that include countless stitches, a broken nose, a broken jaw, a fractured cheekbone and a possible fracture of the orbital bone around the eye. The Red Wings were livid and called for Lemieux's suspension, but he said that while he was sorry Draper was so badly injured, the hit was a legal shoulder-to-shoulder blow.

"I think the Wings should be furious at the way they played the last two years in the playoffs, not at that hit," said Lemieux, who helped sweep the Red Wings out of the finals last year while a member of the New Jersey Devils.

They were more desolate than furious Wednesday. "It's just that I get sick and tired of losing, of going home at the end of the season and answering the same questions I answered last year and the year before," Yzerman said.

This won't be the year for the Red Wings, but it could be for the Avalanche. "Beating Detroit was great, but I really don't think it would have mattered who we beat, not to us, anyway," Sakic said. "Maybe as far as the media it matters because otherwise we wouldn't have gotten respect. I think we'll get that respect now. I certainly hope so."

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