Yzerman: Best record requires no apologies

On the NHL

February 02, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

The Detroit Red Wings and their team leader, Steve Yzerman, have been sensational this season, compiling the NHL's best record.

But they had it last season, too, and were swept in the Stanley Cup finals by the New Jersey Devils.

Listen to Yzerman, a 13-year Detroit veteran, and it is apparent that loss still stings. The team hasn't discussed its disappointment in last year's finals "a whole lot," he said, choosing instead simply to move on.

When he is asked why this team, which is four points ahead of last season's pace, can be trusted to maintain the performance in the postseason, he becomes just a little defensive.

"It's almost like we'd have to apologize for our record," he said. "It's like we should be 20-20-8 or something, instead of 35-9-4. But it's true our success in the playoffs is how we'll be remembered."

Besides having the four-game Cup sweep to deal with, Yzerman and the Red Wings have to answer questions about their own Western Conference.

The situation isn't nearly so bad as in the NFL, where the NFC has beaten the AFC 12 straight years in the Super Bowl. But NHL Eastern Conference teams have won the Stanley Cup each of the past five seasons, and six of the Red Wings' losses this season have been to Eastern teams.

"I don't feel we've been out-muscled," said Yzerman, who collected his 500th career goal this season. "But the style is a little different. The East plays the trap, Jersey style. And they are bigger, though we're not getting knocked around.

"I guess they're just good teams, and the good news is that if we make the finals again, we'll only have to worry about one of them."

Yzerman said the Red Wings are also an improved team.

"[Coach] Scotty [Bowman] has been relentless about our defensive play, about not leaving our zone early," Yzerman said. "He's made it abundantly clear that we have to come to play and practice every day. He told us as the start of the season that we have two choices. If we don't like his way, we can ask to be moved or go out and do things the way he wants it done.

"We've responded by coming from behind to win. We're playing better against the likes of the Rangers and Philly. We're 1-1. And we've played better against New Jersey. We think we're better. We'll have to prove ourselves, but in the meantime, we're going to try to do as well as we can."

A state of mind

That's what most people say about age, and, in the NHL, it is apparently true.

"The only teams that have a lot of younger players are the ones that have not made the playoffs for a number of years," said Toronto Maple Leafs president Cliff Fletcher, whose team ranks fourth in average age (28 years, 1 month), behind the St. Louis Blues (29, 2), Boston Bruins (28, 3) and the Red Wings (28, 2).

The youngest teams are the Edmonton Oilers (24, 2), Montreal Canadiens (24, 9), Pittsburgh Penguins (25, 4), New York Islanders (25, 6) and Ottawa Senators (25, 7).

In Montreal, however, Canadiens president Ron Corey's state of mind about age is different.

"We are a very young team," Corey said. "But that means we have a great future. Can we win the Stanley Cup this year? For sure, we absolutely can do it."

Flames on fire

At the end of November, the Calgary Flames had four wins and 15 losses and appeared to be going nowhere.

Now, coming off a 7-2-2 run in January, coach Pierre Page is so excited about his team that he's talking about earning one of the top four spots in the Western Division by playoff time.

It is a pretty big dream for a team that is five games below .500 (18-23-10) and tied for seventh in the conference.

"We're just eight points behind Toronto in fourth," Page said. "In baseball, they'd say we were 4 1/2 games out with what, 32 to play. That would be nothing."

Page points to a change of style Dec. 26 and a knockdown, drag-out meeting Nov. 25 that brought a lot of unrest out in the open.

"Everyone was mad at everyone else," said Page. "I just told them they can win now. I said, 'Look at Florida. They're playing well. They're not waiting for a savior.' "

But it hasn't hurt the Flames to see left wing Gary Roberts (eight goals, eight assists in eight games) return from an 11-month layoff because of a neck injury.

A Reekie welcome

Washington Capitals defenseman Joe Reekie was nearby when his new teammate, right wing Denis Chasse, was asked how his name is pronounced.

"When he's called for roughing and lands in the penalty box, you call him Denny Chase," Reekie said. "When he scores a goal, you can use the French and call him Den-ee Chas-say."

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