Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Five high-flying, exciting NHL teams of the past (that didn't end well)

Last week, I wrote about the high-powered Dallas Stars, and how hockey fans everywhere should be cheering them on. Many of you agreed, and I’m pleased to confirm that the Stars’ bandwagon is now standing-room only.

But not everyone was on board, and there were two main objections that kept coming up. The first could be summarized as “Tell me to cheer for the Dallas Star one more time and I will and burn your house to the ground,” which came pretty much exclusively from Sabres fans. Come to think of it, I can’t really argue there. That one’s on me, Buffalo.

The second objection was something along the lines of: Why bother? Offense-first teams like the Stars may be fun, the argument went, but they never win in the modern NHL. Dallas will put up gaudy numbers, sure, but when the playoffs come along they’ll eventually run into some boring defense-first team that will shut them down. That’s how it always happens.

And while that’s not entirely true – we have seen some high-skill teams win it all over the years – it does have a familiar ring to it. So today, let’s take a look back at five teams from the past two decades who tried some variation of what the Stars are doing this year, only to see it all end in heartbreak.

It will be painful, but we need to do it. We’re all Dallas Stars fans now. We might as well prepare ourselves for what’s coming.

It’s a trap: The 1994-95 Red Wings

Why they were great: The early 90’s Red Wings were one of the best offensive teams of their generation, and by 1995 they’d led the Western Conference in scoring for four straight years. But they couldn’t seem to break through in the playoffs, and were coming off two straight first round exits.

The 1995 squad was stacked with offensive talent, including future Hall-of-Famers Sergei Fedorov, Paul Coffey and Dino Ciccarelli, a young Nicklas Lidstrom, and captain Steve Yzerman, who missed half the season with an injury but returned for the playoffs. When they hit the postseason, they looked unstoppable through the first three rounds, losing just two games as they rolled into the final as a heavy favorite.

But then they ran into: The New Jersey Devils, a low-scoring collection of pluggers under the guidance of defensive mastermind Jacques Lemaire. They played the neutral zone trap and relied on blatant clutch-and-grab tactics to slow down more offensively skilled teams and the goaltending of Martin Brodeur to shut the door on the few scoring chances they did allow. The high-powered Red Wings never had a chance, held to two goals or less in every contest of a four-game sweep. The rest of the NHL realized that the trap could trump skill, and the dark cloud of the Dead Puck Era settled over the league, never to be dispelled.

Or at least, that’s the story we all seem to have agreed on over the years. The reality is a little bit more complicated. For example, those defense-first Devils actually allowed more goals during the 94-95 season than the high-flying Red Wings did. And while they didn’t score much in that year’s lockout-shortened season, they’d led the Eastern Conference in goals scored in the previous year, so it’s not like they didn’t have a few guys who could put the puck in the net.

For the most part, hockey fans haven’t let any of that get in the way of a good narrative. And it’s certainly true that the 1995 final was an example of defense beating offense. But this upset probably gets too much credit for ushering in the defensive era; it’s not like it was some sort of unstoppable juggernaut getting derailed by an expansion team.

No, that came next year…

>> Read the full post on ESPN.com

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