Memories of classic Wings, Avalanche rivalry come into focus again

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Denver — When you have a Detroit Red Wings’ game against the Colorado Avalanche, the past can overshadow the present.

So many memories, moments and games in this classic rivalry, going back to the mid-1990s, and being replayed over and over for fans of the game.

Darren McCarthy's fight with Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux in March 1997 was one of the classic memories of the Wings and Avalanche games in the 1990s.

“I certainly have great memories watching it as a Red Wings fan,” coach Jeff Blashill said.

So many Hall of Fame players on both sides, and Stanley Cups won by both organizations.

But since the salary cap era was instituted, the Avalanche regressed and are now returning to former glory, while the Red Wings reversed it — remained a powerhouse but are headed for a fourth consecutive playoff miss.

Back then, before the salary cap, both of these organizations accumulated high-priced talent with no regard to budget restraints.

Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said he had "great memories" of watching of the Wings-Avs rivalry as a fan.

“It was a time where when you have two teams as good as these teams were, and an era where there were only so many contenders,” Blashill said. “It’s not the league is now, as even as it is now. Back then, it was only five teams in the West(ern Conference) that had a chance to represent the West to win the Cup, maximum.

“So it allowed for a bit of dynasties, and with that, it became a real rivalry, year after year, and it was great.”

A game like Monday’s though, when you’re facing a old rival like the Avalanche, does make Blashill reflect on what it means for himself, and the players, being part of the Wings.

“When you work and play for Detroit, you know you’re playing and working for one of the most special organizations in sports,” Blashill said. “Every organization has history, but few have the history of success that the Detroit Red Wings have, and certainly that era, and that rivalry, is part of that great, great history.

“But what we also have to focus on today and that is to focus on winning a hockey game and try to develop our young players, so that we can add to that history (of the rivalry) at a later time.”

What can happen

Three seasons ago, when the Avalanche completed the 2016-17 season, they had the NHL’s worst record, at 22-56-4, only 48 points, with a minus-112 goal differential (166 goals scored, 278 allowed).

They’re all statistics and records the Red Wings are challenging this season.

But seeing where the Avalanche are today — 27-15-6 entering the game, firmly in the playoff picture — also shows how quickly an organization can shift gears if it drafts well.

“It’s the reality,” said Blashill, of how things can change. “If you draft really, really well, it can change. Three years ago, they had a No. 1 pick, not theirs, but in Erik Johnson (acquired in trade), a No. 2 (overall) in Gabriel Landeskog, and No. 1 in (Nathan) MacKinnon in their lineup at that time. They had some other top picks, (Tyson) Barrie (since traded) was a pretty high pick (3rd-round) and Matt Duchene was No. 3 overall, they had those guys in their organization and lineup.

“For whatever reason, three years ago, it didn’t go that year. The year before it was better (82 points), but they had enough, I would say, in the replenishment curve then probably where we might be today.”

But a lot depends, said Blashill, on when those draft picks and players flourish.

“If all of a sudden some of the guys we’ve drafted the last several years really pop, it changes fast,” Blashill said. “You just don’t know which guys will really pop and which aren’t. You have to go through a number of years of drafting real well and if you do, you’ll get yourself into position where it can change in a hurry.”

Ice chips

Incidentally, the Red Wings are four points behind that bad Avalanche season of three years ago, the worst of the salary cap era. Colorado 32 points through 49 games, four more than the Wings have (28).

... Blashill and some players liked the early afternoon start Monday.

"You get up and you don't have to go through the rigamarole in the morning, the morning skate and all that stuff, our guys like it," Blashill said. "You get up and go and play." 

.. .Blashill coached former Michigan standout, forward J.T. Compher, at the world championship tournament.

"I liked him, he's real smart player," Blashill said. "He's a guy who didn't get as much ice time as he probably liked early, but by the end of the tournament, he got a lot because he's a winner."

Twitter: @tkulfan