Colorado Avalanche: Why Not Us? The 1996-97 Season

22 May 1997: Colorado Avalanche head coach Marc Crawford (center) yells during a playoff game against the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. The Red Wings won the game, 6-0. Mandatory Credit: Jason Wise /Allsport
22 May 1997: Colorado Avalanche head coach Marc Crawford (center) yells during a playoff game against the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. The Red Wings won the game, 6-0. Mandatory Credit: Jason Wise /Allsport /

“Heavy is the head that wears the crown” is a Shakespearean quote that best can describe 1996-97 for the defending Stanley Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche.

In this new series titled “Why Not Us”, we will take a retrospective look at the individual seasons in Colorado Avalanche history in which they didn’t win the Stanley Cup. Through this series, I wanted to give a little more appreciation and notoriety to the players, storylines, and seasons that we may have forgotten to prepare ourselves for the 25th anniversary of the Avalanche relocation.

So let’s take a trip down memory lane and pour us a tall glass of nostalgia as we enjoy the seasons and stories of days gone by.

The Colorado Avalanche debuted in Denver during the 1995-96 season with an impressive inaugural season which culminated in a Stanley Cup series sweep against the Florida Panthers. In the playoff series leading up to the cup, the Avalanche gained the attention of the league by upsetting the defending Western Conference champion Detroit Red Wings in 6 games.

In what ended up being the series-clinching Game 6, Avalanche winger Claude Lemieux laid a vicious hit on Red Wings center Chris Draper, causing extensive facial injuries including a broken jaw and broken orbital bones requiring facial reconstructive surgery. The Draper hit sent tempers flaring for both teams and fueled a fire amongst players, coaches, and fans that would come to a boiling point in the 1996-97 season.

The team would again be led by Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Valeri Kamensky, and Patrick Roy in the 1996-97 campaign. They found themselves as a prohibitive favorite to repeat as Stanley Cup champions according to the media. In the 95-96 season, the Avs were transitioning out of the Nordique nomenclature and did not find themselves on the radar of the media until their playoff run. Riding the championship success and hype of last year, the Avs seemed ready to blaze a trail of dominance for the new season.

Although the Avs lost the first two games of the season against St Louis and Dallas, the Avalanche ended the month of October with an 8-4-1 record. Looking oddly reminiscent to last year’s team, the Avs were able to string together multiple winning streaks of 4 and 5 games intermittently throughout the season while never losing more than 2 games in a row all year.

With a 31-16-8 record to begin the month of March, the Avalanche looked like they were going to fulfill the predictions of the preseason and reclaim the throne once again.  But when it comes to the NHL season, the month of March is where teams can make or break their chances for making the playoffs. The Avalanche had to push through a team that they left beaten, bloodied, and angry in the playoffs the year prior.

On March 26th, 1997 the Colorado Avalanche met the Detroit Red Wings in the Joe Louis Arena. The Avs had played the Wings twice already in the season with not much hostility being exerted, but tonight was different. The playoffs were just a month away, and both teams were fighting for a top spot in the west.

The individual fighting between the teams began in the first period. Avs defensemen Brent Severyn (who led the team all year in penalty minutes with 193) went toe to toe with Wings D-man Jamie Pushor within the first 5 minutes of the game, escalating hostility and emotion almost instantly. Not even a full 6 minutes after the first fight a second fight ensued between Colorado forward Rene Corbet and Detroit’s Kirk Maltby, sending tensions to a fever pitch.

At the 18:22 mark of the 1st period, the emotions and frustrations of both teams went into a full-fledged meltdown as Igor Larionov of the Wings brawled with Peter Forsberg of the burgundy and blue. During the tussle between Igor and Peter, Darren McCarty went into “Terminator mode” and set his sights on Claude Lemieux to avenge the hit delivered in last year’s playoffs.

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This kicked the top off the proverbial ant hill, Patrick Roy came out of his crease to aid his ambushed teammate Lemieux, which prompted Mike Vernon to leave his crease. Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves an “old-time hockey” line brawl and blood, jerseys and composure now are all left on the ice.

When the final horn in overtime sounded to signify the end of the game, 10 fights had occurred, 39 penalties, 148 penalty minutes, and the beginning of the most infamous hockey rivalries of all time. The game saw both head coaches taking shots in the media showing this was a rivalry from the top to the bottom of these teams.

The Avs used the infamous “Brawl at the Joe” as a moment to prove their legitimacy as an established franchise in the NHL and further motivate their playoff chase. The Red Wings used it as motivation and a rallying cry for the rest of the season because they knew if those teams were fighting for the cup, their paths will cross again.

The Colorado Avalanche ended the 96-97 regular season as 1st in the Pacific Division and 1st in the NHL, earning them a Presidents Trophy. With contributions from Adam Deadmarsh in his 33  goal season, Peter Forsberg tallying 86 points, Eric Lacroix and Mike Keane both playing 81 games and being a consistent factor of the lineup, and Patrick Roy posting a 38 win season with a .923 save percentage, the Avs looked destined for a repeat championship. The Avs would get the draw of the Chicago Blackhawks in their opening-round playoff series.

The Avalanche played the Blackhawks in a high scoring Western Conference Quarterfinal that lasted 6 games. The series is noteworthy because Patrick Roy earned his 89th postseason victory in Game 5 and became the all-time winningest playoff goalie, passing the New York Islanders goaltender Billy Smith. Colorado shutout the Chicago twice in the series with a 6-0 rout in game 1 and a 7-0 bludgeoning in game 5. The Avs put the Hawks away in game 6 and focused their sights on the Western Conference Semi-Final matchup against Edmonton.

For the Avalanche, the Edmonton Oilers Semi-Final series ended up being a slightly easier obstacle than what they faced in Chicago. Winning the series against the Oilers in just 5 games as opposed to the 6 games it took to dismantle Blackhawks, it seemed as if the Avs had hit their stride. There was just one final obstacle to get back into the promised land, one last playoff series, one last team, Detroit.

Colorado versus Detroit, you couldn’t have scripted it any better. The skill was there, the passion was there, the intensity was there and the hate never left. Game 1 was close and heated, but the Avs ended up squeaking out a 2-1 win at home, giving glimpses that they might have the upper hand in this series.

Game 2, however, saw the Wings dismantle the Avs in Denver 4-2, swinging momentum back towards Detroit and making the series even at one game apiece going back to “The Joe”. As to be expected in Game 3 the Wings rode the momentum they stole in Game 2 and won 2-1 at home, tilting the series and emotion their way.

After a verbal back and forth in the media by Colorado coach Marc Crawford and Scotty Bowman of Detroit, Patrick Roy came out and said publicly he was “going to play his best game of the series” and it was time to “pay the price.” The tension going into Game 4 was at a boiling point. In absolutely shocking fashion in Game 4, the Red Wings blanked the Avs 6-0.

To add insult to injury, Roy was pulled after the 5th goal similarly to his final days in Montreal. That really sent shockwaves of worry into the morale of fans. The Avs end up responding in Game 5 with their own 6-0 rout at home, trying to overcome a 3-1 series deficit with Game 6 headed back to Detroit.

Game 6 ended up being the last game for the Avalanche. They lost 3-1 in Game 6 in Detroit. The physicality and aggressive play turned out to be too much for the Avs to climb out of the hole they dug for themselves early in the series. The pressures of repeating as champions coupled with a dose of overconfidence resulted in the team running out of gas before the finish line.

The team had an experienced roster sprinkled with Hall of Fame talent, but in their path to winning their first cup in 95-96, they woke a sleeping giant in Detroit who became a nemesis for years to come.

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The 1996-97 Colorado Avalanche had a similar DNA to the team that won it all a year before. They had the passion and the experience to repeat, but this time they had the target on their back. The Red Wings needed that element of revenge to end their Stanley Cup drought of 42 years.

And you might say the Avs fell victim to their own success. But you can not say this version of the Avs was a bad team by any means. We said in the opening of this series that “Heavy is the head that wears the crown” but as you will see in the next few installments that between these two teams, “All is fair in love and war”.