Elimination in the Stanley Cup playoffs can be particularly cruel in its suddenness and finality.
The Red Wings of 2000-01 led the Los Angeles Kings, 2-0, in the first round, best-of-seven go-round. The Kings finished 19 points behind the Red Wings in the conference standings, winning 11 fewer games than Detroit (49-38).
After Games 1 and 2, it looked like the Kings would be on the golf course in a matter of days.
But in Los Angeles, things changed. The Kings won Game 3, then handed the Red Wings an especially galling defeat in Game 4, coming from behind with a three-goal third period and then winning the game in overtime.
Back in Detroit, suddenly embroiled in a series, the Red Wings were flat in Game 5 and lost, 3-2.
Then came that suddenness and finality of elimination.
It happened in Los Angeles, on April 23, 2001.
The Red Wings lost Game 6 in overtime, and just like that, their promising season was over with.
After spotting the Red Wings a 2-0 series lead, the Kings swept them in four straight.
When a Cup favorite gets dismissed in the first round of the playoffs, there is no shortage of blame to go around.
Was it the goaltending? Chris Osgood wasn’t brilliant.
Was it the offense? The Red Wings scored nine goals combined in Games 1 and 2, then could only muster eight over the next four contests.
Was it the defense? The Red Wings didn’t give Osgood a lot of help in several of LA’s goals.
Regardless, to not even make it into May grated on the Red Wings and especially owner Mike Ilitch in the summer of 2001.
Several of the Red Wings’ star players weren’t getting any younger. If the team was going to win another Stanley Cup, reinforcements would be needed.
So Ilitch broke out his checkbook and pumped some of his pizza dough into his hockey team.
It started in May with the signing, for depth, of veteran defenseman Fredrik Olausson, the Swede who’d been out of the NHL for a season, spending the 2000-01 campaign playing in his home country.
It continued—and the stakes got higher—with the trade for All-World goalie Dominik Hasek on July 1. After the trade, Osgood was exposed in the waiver draft and was claimed by the New York Islanders, of all teams.
Late in the summer, Ilitch green-lighted huge contracts to snipers Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille, who weren’t spring chickens themselves.
Defense was addressed. Goaltending was addressed. Offense was addressed. And the Red Wings suddenly had an embarrassment of riches. Their roster read like a Who’s Who of NHL power brokers.
It was all done for one reason, of course: to win the Stanley Cup. Right now. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200.
Everyone that GM Ken Holland added with his boss’ blessing in the 2001 off-season was old. But they were still damn fine hockey players.
Fine enough to indeed win the Cup the following June, after a scary first round against Vancouver.
With the announcement on Monday that Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Lidstrom had been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, that brought to nine the number of players from the 2001-02 Red Wings who are now Hall of Famers.
Nine players is almost half of a nightly lineup of 18 skaters and two goalies.
The team was coached by a HOFer as well—Scotty Bowman.
Bowman had been down this path before, in Montreal.
With the Canadiens, Scotty coached the likes of Guy LaFleur, Larry Robinson, Jacques Lemaire, Serge Savard, Bob Gainey et al. The goalie was Ken Dryden. That team won four straight Cups (1976-79). So Bowman knew what to do when the roster was filled to the gills with elite talent.
It’s tempting to wonder whether the 2002 Red Wings should go down as one of the best teams of all-time.
Two things work against that notion, however.
One, pretty much the same team (minus Hasek, who retired but who was replaced by Curtis Joseph, who was no slouch; and Bowman, who retired) was ousted in the first round of the 2003 playoffs, in four straight games to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (coached by Mike Babcock).
Two, because of age and retirement, the core of that 2002 squad didn’t last together for very long.
But it’s fair to suggest that, when considering single seasons only, the 2001-02 Red Wings rival some of the greatest teams in league history, if only due to star power.
Put them up against the Canadiens of the 1950s/1970s, the Islanders of the early-1980s and the Oilers of the late-1980s. Put them up against those powerful Red Wings teams of the 1950s as well.
The 2002 team holds up just fine, when compared in terms of doing, for one season, what those teams did in multiple ones. Certainly in terms of Hall of Fame talent.
But because of the mercurial nature of the 2002 Red Wings, never can they be considered one of the greatest teams of all-time when discussing sustainability.
The base core was built via the draft, but when push came to shove, Ilitch used the hammer of his deep pockets and free agency to finish the job.
Without Hasek, Hull and Robitaille, the 2002 Red Wings probably wouldn’t have won the Stanley Cup, though it was a possibility. The addition of those three Hall of Famers put the team over the hump.
There’s a lot of chatter today about whether Fedorov deserves to have his no. 91 hanging from the rafters—if not at Joe Louis Arena, then in the new facility that’s being built.
That’s a fair question. Maybe even a good one.
But Yzerman and Fedorov and Lidstrom and Chelios and Shanahan needed some help. The 2001 early exit from the playoffs illustrated that.
Hasek, Hull and Robitaille provided that help, and then some.
This doesn’t take away from Sergei and Nick’s special day, of course.
What it means to do is remind Red Wings fans that they were alive to see, for one brilliant season, a hockey machine and a collection of talent that may not be seen again, thanks to the salary cap.