Commentary

History lesson? Not in this Red Wings-Avs bout

Updated: April 24, 2008, 12:56 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Get out the tape!

Search the newspaper archives!

Find Dino Ciccarelli and ask him if he still can't believe he shook Claude Lemeiux's freakin' hand!

Or, heck, plug "Red Wings Avalanche rivalry" into the search engine and get 68,900 entries -- with the March 26, 1997 brawl right on top.

Never mind that a lot of that doesn't mean diddly -- or Google -- to many of the current members of the Colorado and Detroit rosters.

In fact, to many of the 20-something players in the NHL, the 1990s might as well be the Dead Sea Scrolls, silent movies, vinyl records or really, really, really old stuff -- like VHS tapes or, perhaps, wood sticks.

On the verge of the Detroit-Colorado Western Conference semifinal series that opens Thursday night at Joe Louis Arena, it's all ancient history, to various degrees.

For example, Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have played a combined total of one (1) playoff series against Colorado.

And, in the Colorado dressing room, only four players in the postseason lineup -- captain Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote and Milan Hejduk -- have been in an Avalanche-Red Wings series.

[+] EnlargeMike Babcock
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiEarlier this season, tempers flared between Wings coach Mike Babcock, left, and Avs assistant Tony Granato.

"This means a lot to the guys who were around for those days," Sakic said Wednesday. "We know what to expect. We know the buzz in both cities. It's going to be exciting and a lot of fun. But obviously, you probably have to create [a rivalry] a little bit, because there were not too many guys on either team who were around for those days.

"I was joking around that a lot of these kids were in elementary or junior high when that was going on. But they're going to see what it's like firsthand pretty quick, I'm pretty sure."

So, first things first: If this upcoming series develops a sharp edge, it won't be because of history, but because of the present -- the high stakes and overheated emotions of today -- not because anyone got psyched the night before by looking at footage of Patrick Roy duking it out with Mike Vernon or Chris Osgood at center ice; or Foote's running battle with Brendan Shanahan; or even Lemieux's infamous check of Kris Draper into the boards at the old McNichols Sports Arena in 1996 and Darren McCarty's subsequent vengeance.

History will be an issue because of the infectious undercurrent, and even then not necessarily because it makes sense.

Three of the featured performers in the rivalry from the '90s are back -- Forsberg and Foote, who rejoined Colorado in late February; and McCarty, who made it back to the Red Wings in late March. Maybe that adds spice, but it doesn't completely roll back the calendar.

"I think the fans and media are pretty jacked up," Foote said. "As far as the players, we have to make sure we're focused and make sure we don't get too caught up in it."

Foote smiled when his infamous face wash-and-more battles with Shanahan, now with the Rangers, came up. "You know what?" he said. "If it isn't him, it's going to be someone else."

Detroit beat the Avalanche in all four meetings this season, shutting out Colorado three times. This happened to a lot of Detroit opponents, but in this case, the games had the look much of the time of a couple of teenage bullies playing keep-away from little kids. Colorado rarely had the puck, and that was even when the Red Wings' defensive corps was short-handed because of a midseason run of injuries.

[+] Enlarge
AP Photo/Tom PidgeonFights like this one in 1997 were among the norm between the Wings and Avs in the late '90s.

For the Avalanche to have a chance in this series, the trends of the regular season have to be proved irrelevant because of various circumstances. Sakic didn't play a game against Detroit this season because of his 38-game absence with a sports hernia. Paul Stastny and Ryan Smyth each played in only two of the meetings. Foote and Forsberg rejoined the Avalanche after the regular-season series was over, as did Ruslan Salei, who also ratcheted up the physical quotient on the Colorado blue line. Finally, Colorado goaltender Jose Theodore's renaissance in the 2008 calendar year changes the picture, as well.

"Just look at the personnel. So yeah, it's different, very different," Sakic said. "It's been different since February … I think we're playing well right now. We had a good series against Minnesota. Guys are playing hard and we're confident about what we can do. We still have to go out and do it, though."

The teams haven't met in the postseason since the 2002 conference finals, when Roy's infamous matador wave with the puck was followed by it falling behind him in the net in what turned out to be Detroit's 2-0 win in Denver, and then a 7-0 Detroit rout in the Joe in Game 7. Despite that, Colorado still won three of the five playoff series between the two teams, with the winner going on to take the Stanley Cup three times -- Colorado in 1996 and Detroit in 1997 and 2002. Each team won the Cup an additional time in that seven-season run from 1996 to 2002 in years when they didn't meet in the postseason. So during the real heyday of the rivalry, the two teams won the NHL title in five of seven seasons.

Maybe that's what truly makes a rivalry, the feeling that to the survivor, go the spoils.

Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville was a Colorado assistant in 1996, when Colorado upset the Wings in the conference finals and went on to win the Stanley Cup, before he moved on to coach the St. Louis Blues.

"It's great to be a part of it again," he said of the playoff rivalry. "For the guys who have experienced it, it will be fun to be active in that type of a series. But the guys who haven't seen it, they'll immediately capture the feeling and the excitement, the meaning of a shift, the building being loud, crazy and exciting. It's a lot of good things going into it. Whether you've been a part of it or not, you'll be able to feel it."

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."