Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
Admit it. It's just not the same.
Prior to the 2014 NHL season, a visit from the hated, octopus-sucking, red (devil) clad Detroit Red Wings would get the blood pumping and be a cause for major anticipation and excitement. Alas, the Red Wings (why isn't it Redwings since Chicago is now referred to as the Blackhawks?) moved to the Eastern Conference of the NHL and a long-standing rivalry pretty much came to an end. Admit it, tonight is just another game on the long regular season schedule.
Although they had played games prior to 1981, the St. Louis-Detroit rivalry really began when the Red Wings joined the newly-formed Norris Division for the 1981-82 season. Previously, the Blues were part of the Smythe Division of the Clarence Campbell (Western) Conference along with Chicago, Vancouver, Edmonton, Colorado (Rockies) and Winnipeg (old Jets, now in Arizona as the Coyotes). The Red Wings were in the Prince of Wales (Eastern) Conference, Norris Division, along with Montreal, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Hartford Whalers. Except for the Jets, the Red Wings were the worst team in the NHL. Except for the Islanders, the Blues were the best team in the NHL, 27 games over .500.
Mostly due to geographical (and "rivalry") considerations, the 1981 season saw major changes in the alignment of teams and Detroit, Toronto and Minnesota (North Stars) went west to the Norris Division while Los Angeles went west to the Smythe Division, both divisions now in the Campbell Conference, while the New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, and Washington went east to the Patrick Division, Prince of Wales Conference. Have you got all that straight now?
The new Norris, aka Chuck Norris aka Black-and-Blue Division saw intense rivalries build between the Blues, Blackhawks, and Red Wings. Minnesota finished on top that first season with 94 points, followed by Winnipeg, St. Louis and Chicago, all qualifying for the playoffs. Toronto and Detroit did not make it, both 24 games under .500. The Blues and Blackhawks made it to the second round of the playoffs by respectively beating the Jets and North Stars, with Chicago edging the Note, winning four of six games in the conference semi-finals. The Blackhawks were easily ousted by the Canucks, who in turn were swept by the powerful Islanders, who went on to win their third Stanley Cup in a row.
The intensity of the Blues-Red Wings rivalry was magnified in playoff action in the late 1980s. Detroit won the 1988 Norris Division championship with 93 points, followed by the Blues with 76. They would meet in the division finals, with the Red Wings taking four of five tough, brutal games. Bob Probert led Detroit in post-season scoring with eight goals and 21 points, one point ahead of Adam Oates. Winger Petr Klima led the team with ten goals. Other notables on that team included injured Steve Yzerman (four points in three games), Gerard Gallant and former (or future) Blues Dave Barr, Lee Norwood, Jim Nill, Rick Zombo, Joe Murphy, Harold Snepsts and Jim Pavese. The Blues featured a strong team, led by Brett Hull, Doug Gilmour, Bernie Federko, Brian Sutter, and goaltender Greg Millen, the one who danced so well to the Budweiser theme song.
In 1991, the Blues would return the favor by ousting the Red Wings in seven games of the division semi-finals after overcoming a 3-1 deficit. This was the season in which Brett Hull scored 50 goals in 50 games and the Blues amassed 105 points during the regular season. A star-studded cast included Oates (obtained in June, 1989, from Detroit with Paul MacLean for Federko and Tony McKegney), Jeff Brown, Rod Brind'Amour, Scott Stevens, Garth Butcher, and goaltender Vincent Riendeau.
St. Louis and Detroit would match up in the playoffs three straight times from 1996 to 1998, with the Red Wings winning all three. Most disheartening, of course, was the Blues' double overtime loss in game seven in 1996. No true member of Blues Nation will ever forget Wayne Gretzky coughing up the puck and Yzerman scoring the series winning goal over the shoulder of Jon Casey.
The Blues would fall to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Red Wings in the conference semi-finals of 2002, the last time they would meet in post-season play. However, the inter-divisional battles would continue, culminating in a fierce battle for the divisional championship in 2012. The Blues won the division that season, finishing seven points ahead of the Wings.
Although happy with the two points, the Blues did not look particularly good against Buffalo Thursday night. Those two points were courtesy of Jake Allen, who was once again spectacular in goal. The Note will have to step it up a bit tonight against a decent Detroit team, two games over .500, but currently out of a playoff slot in the Eastern Conference, currently third place in the Atlantic Division. Henrik Zetterberg leads the Wings in scoring with 15 points, followed by rookie sensation Dylan Larkin with 13 points (and a +13). Winger Gustav Nyquist leads the team with seven goals. And Pavel Datsyuk is back after missing 15 games, scoring one assist in four games. Goaltenders Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard have been the best over-all players for Detroit and either one will provide a formidable opponent.
Since the going is getting tougher, the Blues had better tough it out and get going if they hope to keep up with Dallas and Nashville in the Central Division, the toughest in the NHL.