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2001-02 Red Wings were the best team of the decade

by John Kreiser
Throughout the week, is presenting a look at the best players, top teams, biggest moments and greatest achievements during the first decade of the new century. The selections were made by a panel of writers and other hockey experts. Today, we look at the top teams, led by the 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings -- our choice as the best of the decade.

The NHL in the 2000s had more teams and more talent than any previous decade in NHL history. The one thing it didn't have was dominant teams.

For the first time since the NHL took control of the Stanley Cup in the 1920s, the 2000s saw no repeat champions. There were no dynasties like the Canadiens of the 1950s and 1970s, the Maple Leafs of the 1960s, or the Islanders and Oilers in the 1980s. There weren't even any "almost dynasties" -- repeat winners like the Penguins and Red Wings in the 1990s who came up just short of greatness.

That doesn't mean there weren't excellent teams during the decade -- if anything, it means the caliber of play has improved so much that there are few (if any) easy wins these days. With more parity than ever, powerhouse teams had more trouble than ever staying on top -- and none of them managed to do it more than once.

Here are our top five teams for the first decade of the 21st century:

1) 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings
Regular season: 116 points; First in Central Division, First in Western Conference, Won Presidents' Trophy
Playoffs: Won Stanley Cup (beat Carolina 4-1 in Final)

Talk about a team awash in talent. The '01-02 Red Wings were swimming in Hall of Famers (present and future), from goal (Dominik Hasek) to defense (Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios) to the front line (Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Luc Robitaille, Brett Hull, Igor Larionov, Sergei Fedorov) and even behind the bench (Scotty Bowman).

Those Wings were so good that Pavel Datsyuk, a star in the later part of the decade, was basically a spare part (13:39 average ice time in 70 games).

Under Bowman, the Wings blew through the regular season, finishing 15 points ahead of the next-best team (Boston) despite having no player score more than 75 points. They had to go to seven games to beat archrival Colorado in the Western Finals, but routed the Avs, 7-0, in the deciding game. Carolina stunned the Wings by winning the opener 3-2 in overtime, but Detroit allowed just four goals in winning the next four games, capped by a 3-1 win in Game 5.

"We really had balanced scoring. I think at the end of the day, that was the difference playing Colorado in the semis, then ultimately against Carolina. Despite winning in five, they were relatively close games. We were able to generate, get more production from all four of our lines." -- Steve Yzerman

"We really had balanced scoring," Yzerman said during last month's Hall of Fame induction, when he, Robitaille and Hull were all inducted. "I think at the end of the day, that was the difference playing Colorado in the semis, then ultimately against Carolina. Despite winning in five, they were relatively close games. We were able to generate, get more production from all four of our lines."

Yzerman, who led the Wings in playoff scoring despite playing on one healthy leg, carried the Stanley Cup for the third and final time in his career. Lidstrom, who won the first of his six Norris trophies as the NHL's best defenseman, received the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Bowman, who had decided earlier in the season that he would retire, stunned everyone by putting on skates and joining in the on-ice celebration.

With as many as 10 current or future Hall of Famers on the roster (plus Bowman, who was inducted a decade earlier), the Wings have a solid claim as the best team to take the ice during this decade.

2) 2000-01 Colorado Avalanche
Regular season: 118 points; First in Northwest Division, First in Western Conference, Won Presidents' Trophy
Playoffs: Won Stanley Cup (beat New Jersey 4-3 in Final)

Ray Bourque spent 20 seasons in Boston doing just about everything a player can do in a career -- except win the Stanley Cup. The Bruins, then in a down cycle, sent Bourque to Colorado in 2000, and he needed only one more season to cap his Hall of Fame career with the one thing that was missing.

Led by Joe Sakic's 54-goal, 118-point season, the Avs won their division by 25 points and finished seven points ahead of Detroit in the race to be best in the West. They had a scare in the Western semifinals, needing seven games to beat Los Angeles, but routed St. Louis in five to earn a crack at the defending champion New Jersey Devils.

It was a back-and-forth series, with the teams splitting the first four games before New Jersey shocked the crowd in Denver by winning Game 5, 4-1. Undaunted, the Avs headed East and returned the favor with a 4-0 victory at the Meadowlands, then came home and captured the Cup with a 3-1 victory.

Goaltender Patrick Roy earned the Conn Smyth Trophy as playoff MVP, but the star of the night was Bourque, who was given the Cup by Sakic immediately after the Avs' captain got it from Commissioner Gary Bettman and allowed the honor of the first skate.

"To allow me to grab it like that says it all," said Bourque, who had played more games than anyone who hadn't had his name engraved on the Cup.

He kissed the Cup, skated with it and later skated off into retirement with the one honor that had eluded him.

3) 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings
Regular season: 115 points: First in Central Division, First in Western Conference, Won Presidents' Trophy
Playoffs: Won Stanley Cup (beat Pittsburgh 4-2 in Final)

Like most good teams, the Wings were more than the sum of their parts -- and those parts were awfully good.

With Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood in goal, the Wings were assured of top-caliber netminding every night. Nicklas Lidstrom led the defense by winning his sixth Norris Trophy in seven seasons. Pavel Datsyuk (31-66-97, plus-41) and Henrik Zetterberg (43-49-92, plus-30) led a deep, diverse attack that also knew how to be responsible without the puck.

The Wings won their division by 24 points and the conference and Presidents' Trophy by seven over San Jose.

Coach Mike Babcock made the biggest move of the playoffs in Game 4 of the opening round against Nashville, replacing a struggling Hasek with Osgood -- who played so well that Hasek never got his job back. The Wings went on to beat Nashville in six games, swept Colorado, beat Dallas in six and knocked off the young Pittsburgh Penguins in six games to bring the Cup back to Hockeytown for the first time since 2002. Zetterberg won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP after finishing tied for first in goals and points -- and shutting down Sidney Crosby in the Final.

Lidstrom became the first European to captain a Stanley Cup winner.

"Nicklas Lidstrom, in my opinion, is a phenomenal leader and captain with his poise and his skill," Babcock said. "And then the support group in (Chris) Chelios and (Kris) Draper. And (Pavel) Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg, for their leadership. "we have a very special team, and we're thrilled to be in this situation."

4) 2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning
Regular season: 106 points: First in Southeast Division, First in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Won Stanley Cup (beat Calgary 4-3 in Final)

For the first decade of their existence, the Tampa Bay Lightning usually spent the spring somewhere other than the St. Pete Times Forum. But by 2003-04, the Lightning had turned into the class of the Eastern Conference. With an attack featuring six 20-goal scorers and led by NHL scoring leader Martin St. Louis and centers Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, the Lightning finished third in the NHL in scoring. A defense led by Dan Boyle and playing in front of goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin was one of the NHL's best.

The Bolts ran away with the division title and edged Boston by two points for the top spot in the East. They blitzed the Islanders and Montreal in the first two rounds and got past Philadelphia in seven games to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time.

Though the Detroit Red Wings had won the Presidents' Trophy with 109 points, they were knocked out by Calgary in the second round. The Flames then beat San Jose in six games in the Western Finals to make the Final for the first time since winning it in 1989.

The teams split the first four games before Calgary won Game 5 in OT at Tampa. Game 6 went into double overtime before St. Louis' goal 33 seconds into the second extra period to push the series to the limit. In Game 7, Ruslan Fedotenko scored twice and Khabibulin held off a late charge by the Flames for a 2-1 win and the first championship in franchise history.

"We are winners," St. Louis said. "We're going to walk together forever. Nothing can describe how it feels to be the last team standing."

5) 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes
Regular season: 112 points: Won Southeast Division, Second in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Won Stanley Cup (beat Edmonton 4-3 in Final)

The resumption of play after the work stoppage that cancelled the 2004-05 season saw a change in fortune for a number of teams. One of the biggest upward moves was made by the Carolina Hurricanes, who went from a non-playoff team in 2003-04 to a division title in '05-06.

The 'Canes got a big lift from the arrival of Eric Staal, the No. 2 pick in the 2003 Entry Draft who had been forced to spend the 2004-05 season in the minors. He turned into a 45-goal, 100-point scorer and gave the Hurricanes a major offensive boost. So did the addition of two veterans, center Doug Weight and winger Mark Recchi, who came over in in-season trades.
"I just kept thinking there is no way we can let this go. There's too many guys that deserve this." -- Hurricanes captain Rod Brind'Amour 
Carolina won the Southeast Division title, beat Montreal in the opening round and New Jersey in the second before outlasting Buffalo in seven games to win the Eastern Conference Finals. It looked like they might have an easy time in the Stanley Cup Final after winning three of the first four games against the Edmonton Oilers, a surprise finalist. But the Oilers won Games 5 and 6, sending the series back to Raleigh for Game 7. The 'Canes took an early 2-0 lead, survived a third-period surge by Edmonton and locked up the first NHL title in franchise history when Justin Williams' empty-netter secured a 3-1 victory.

Team captain Rod Brind'Amour had tears streaming down his face after he hoisted the Cup.
"I just kept thinking there is no way we can let this go," the 35-year-old center said. "There's too many guys that deserve this."

Honorable mention (best team that didn't win the Cup)
2005-06 Detroit Red Wings
Regular season: 124 points: Won Central Division, Won Western Conference, Won Presidents' Trophy

The arrival of the "new NHL" following the work stoppage didn't keep the Detroit Red Wings from doing what they had done the previous season -- finishing ahead of everyone else during the regular season. The Wings piled up 58 victories and 124 points, making them the favorites for the Stanley Cup.

But it wasn't to be. The Wings faced the eighth-place Edmonton Oilers in the opening round of the playoffs, and it was apparent immediately that the series wouldn't be the cakewalk many had expected. After the teams split the first four games, Edmonton came into Joe Louis Arena, scored three goals in the second period and made them stand up for a 3-2 win. Back at Rexall Place, Ales Hemsky tied the game with 3:53 remaining and scored again with 1:06 to play to give the Oilers a stunning 4-3 victory -- sending the Wings home with nothing to show for the decade's best regular-season record.
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