‘95-’96: The Greatest Red Wings Team Never to Win the Cup

After a sparkling regular season, what went wrong for this team in the playoffs?

[Editor’s Note: The network is running a theme week about each team’s best club to not win a championship. Check out some of our sister sites for a bit of schadenfreude if the thought of the Wings not winning a cup is too sad to bear.]

The Detroit Red Wings had a culture of winning for a long, long time as evidenced by 25 consecutive playoff appearances between 1990-2016. In that time, the franchise appeared in six Stanley Cup Finals and won four of them.

After a few kicks at the can in the early 1990’s, the front office made the switch behind the bench to a proven winner at the NHL level, bringing in two-time Stanley Cup champion, Scotty Bowman. Bowman made his debut as the Wings’ bench boss in the 1993-94 season and he made an immediate impact.

In just his second season as the team’s head coach, the Wings made it to their first Stanley Cup final in 39 years, losing to the New Jersey Devils. But, the next season may have been the one that stings the most for Wings fans and could be dubbed “the one that got away.”

At the start of the 1995 season, there was a lot of hype surround this Wings team on the heels of a Stanley Cup Finals loss and deservedly so. They had arguably the best coach of all-time — no coach has won a Stanley Cup with three different teams like Bowman has — and a roster ripe with talent in all areas.

Perhaps what set Bowman apart from his other coaching counterparts was his ability to assess talent and adapt his coaching philosophy. His decision to play five Russian-born players on the ice at the same time was revolutionary and one that raised some eyebrows around the NHL, but that’s what was so loveable about Bowman, he didn’t care. Now, his players may not have shared the same opinion as he pushed them to get their best inner potential out on the ice, however, he had a plan and he stuck with it.

Names like Sergei Federov, Igor Larionov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Viacheslav Fetisov formed the ‘Russian Five’ and were a treat to watch on the ice playing keep away from their opponents. Bowman realized the Russian style was faster with increased creativity, using it as a competitive edge against the league’s best.

This team was deep up and down the lineup earning themselves the NHL’s best record at 62-13-7 for 131 points, a record that still stands today. They seemed destined to win their first Stanley Cup in decades and their regular season success continued into the playoffs.

First, they dispatched of the Winnipeg Jets in six games, before a second round showdown with the St. Louis Blues, a team assembled of future Hall-of-Famers like Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull. As a young boy, this was the series that cemented my love for this team and led to an idolization of Steve Yzerman.

Now, if you’re a die hard Wings fan, you remember the goal in double overtime of Game 7. The crowd at Joe Louis Arena was rocking, the anxiety was high on both sides amidst a scoreless tie and then this happened...

And with that booming shot, the legend of Yzerman grew in ‘Hockeytown.’ To this day, that is still my favorite Red Wings memory.

After the Game 7 victory over the Blues, it was time for a Western Conference Finals showdown with the Colorado Avalanche. This series would set the tone for a near decade long rivalry that shed plenty of bad blood on both sides. The Avs were led by Patrick Roy — 16-6, .921 SV%, 2.10 GAA and 3 SO in the playoffs — and they too were deep up front with the likes of Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic.

To me, the one advantage they had over Detroit was in net. The Wings were reliant on a 23-year-old Chris Osgood — 8-7, .898 SV%, 2.12 GAA and 2 SO — who was still relatively inexperienced in the playoff scene and faced a daunting task of knocking off one of the league’s all-time greats in Roy. The series ended in six games with the Avs moving on and eventually sweeping the Florida Panthers to hoist the Stanley Cup.

What went wrong for this Wings team? I just think they weren’t ready to win. It sounds cliche, but if you look at the great dynasties before them — the New York Islanders in the 1970’s and the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980’s — those team’s needed to learn how to lose before they could achieve the pinnacle of their hockey careers.

What could have been in 1996 was a teaching moment for this Red Wings squad on what it would take to make it to the top. And, make it to the top they did as they won back-to-back cups over the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals the next two seasons.