Once the euphoria had worn off after Colorado’s Stanley Cup Championship in 2001, many Avalanche fans (myself included) began to feel just a touch of sadness; the road to The Cup had not gone through Detroit. The second seeded Red Wings lost to the upstart Los Angeles Kings in six games (who then took the Avs to a game seven,) and Avalanche Nation was left wondering what might have come of a playoff matchup with Detroit wherein top-seeded Colorado would have had home ice for once.
There are still a handful of (arrogant) Detroit fans that deny the existence of a rivalry between these two teams, but the fact is that only three Western Conference teams have made regular appearances in the Conference Finals over the last twelve seasons; the Dallas Stars, The Detroit Red Wings, and the Colorado Avalanche. The Stars and Wings have managed to be upset by lower seeds in offsetting years for the majority of that time span, and so have avoided playing each other for the West title and the Campbell Bowl. (The one exception was the 97-98 West Finals.) In fact, two of these three teams played each other in every Conference Final from the 95-96 season through the 01-02 season. The Avalanche beat the Stars once and the Wings once, the Wings beat the Avs twice and the Stars once, and the Stars won the Conference twice, both times against the Avalanche and in consecutive seasons. Even if you don’t call it rivalry by name, the three-way slugfest between these teams did define nearly ten years of playoff hockey. In the whole of the league only the New Jersey Devils can also claim membership in the group of the most consistently elite clubs over that time span. And for Detroit fans who would point to their long history in the league as proof that a younger franchise could not possibly constitute a rivalry, I’ll remind you that the Avalanche/Nordiques franchise combines to become one of the more storied franchises in professional hockey history. And also that all of Detroit’s “traditional rivals” from hockey’s Stone Age are regular basement dwellers now.
There need not be worry or doubt this year, however, as the Avalanche’s road to The Cup will definitely go through Detroit, and could potentially go through Dallas as well. For those of you who would lament the perils of the path to playoff immortality remember this; the NHL postseason features the most grueling playoff in all of sports. Winning it all means your whole team playing at its highest level, to a man, for two straight months. And the team that comes out on top of the remaining Western Conference Playoff field will have willed their way to the top and earned the right to spank whatever hapless band of players comes out of the East to challenge them. This is the hockey playoffs not some NBA foul-fest or an NFL tactics tourney. In the NHL the team with the most impressive combination of skill and willpower wins it. So eat it up, the good stuff only comes once a year.